Docs Taking Medicare Patients, Despite Lower Pay

A new study finds that Medicare patients are not having trouble finding doctors to care for them, despite lower payments.

A flawed payment formula has resulted in small or no increases in payments to physicians in recent years. That's raised concerns that doctors may stop taking Medicare patients.

But the new study from the Government Accountability Office says that's not happening yet. Between 2000 and 2004, both the percentage of Medicare patients getting physician care and the amount of care they got grew. At the same time, patients who reported having trouble finding a doctor remained relatively constant, at about 7 percent.

Doctors have complained that if next year's projected 4.5 percent cut isn't cancelled, doctors will start dropping Medicare patients. Congress has until the end of the year to decide whether to make that change. — Julie Rovner

India Reports Jump in Polio Cases

July 20, 2006 — India is reporting more cases of polio in the first half of this year than it did for the same period last year, but the cases are confined to one area of the country and to just one strain.

Since January, 66 cases of polio have been detected in India. That's three times the number of cases for this period in 2005. The cases were mainly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Those are the poorest parts of India, which have a highly mobile population, making it difficult to reach children who need vaccinating.

India is increasing health workers for immunization campaigns and targeting major train routes, along which the virus is transmitted.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the decrease in the number of strains and geographic spread of the virus suggest India might be in the final stages of

polio eradication. — Brenda Wilson

Panel: Medication Errors Harm 1.5 Million a Year

July 20, 2006 — An expert panel says medication errors are harming at least 1.5 million Americans a year, and many of the mistakes are preventable.

When Congress added drug coverage to Medicare, it asked the National Institute of Medicine to look at medication errors. Its report says such mistakes are common. Panel member Jim Conway, a patient safety expert at Harvard, says American hospital patients have a high risk of suffering a medication mishap.

"If you are hospitalized, you can expect to have at least one medication error a day," Conway says. "It could be the wrong drug. It could be the wrong dose. It could be the wrong time. It could be the wrong patient."

Many mistakes could be prevented by computerizing the prescribing process. The panel calls on hospitals to install such systems by 2010.

The report did not estimate how many people die from medication errors. But it says such errors cost at least $3.5 billion a year. — Richard Knox

Study Links Autism to Fewer Neurons That Process Emotion

July 19, 2006 — New research finds that autism is associated with a reduced number of neurons in a part of the brain that processes certain emotions. The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Scientists found the difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala. It's involved in memories of emotional events and in the response to certain emotions, particularly fear.

A team from the University of California, San Diego and the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis compared brain tissue from the brains of nine people who had autism with the brains of 10 typical people. They ranged in age from 10 to 44 and had died from a variety of causes.

The scientists found that the average amygdala from a person with autism contained about a million fewer neurons than the amygdala from a typical person.

The researchers say this adds to the evidence that the amygdala is a key to understanding what causes autism. — Jon Hamilton

FDA Expert Calls for Antibiotic's Withdrawal

July 19, 2006 — A leading drug safety expert at the Food and Drug Administration says the agency should pull the antibiotic Ketek from the market. Ketek is given for mild respiratory infections and is blamed for at least four deaths due to liver failure since 2004.

In an email to senior FDA officials, dated June 16, David Graham of the FDA's drug safety office said Ketek is at least as toxic, if not more so, than three other drugs that were pulled from the market for liver problems.

Graham recommended Ketek be withdrawn right away. He also questioned why the FDA approved Ketek in the first place when it knew that a key safety study was fraudulent, and that safety data about Ketek's use in other countries were unreliable.

The FDA recently asked Aventis, the company that makes Ketek, to change the drug's label to reflect the risk of liver failure. Both the FDA and Aventis say the drug's benefits outweigh its risks when it's used according to the label's directions. — Snigdha Prakash

Senators Release Plan for FDA Reform

July 19, 2006 — Two powerful senators have released their plans for reforming the Food and Drug Administration.

Following revelations of dissent within the FDA and approvals of drugs that later caused problems, legislators on Capitol Hill began considering ways to improve the agency. Now the effort has been joined by Republican Mike Enzi, chairman of the Senate committee primarily responsible for overseeing the FDA, and ranking Democrat Edward Kennedy.

They've drafted legislation that would, among other things, allow for conditional approval of a drug. Under that system, a drug will have to pass an annual review. The legislation also calls for drug companies to make information on experimental drugs available to the public and establishes stricter standards for who can advise the agency. Enzi and Kennedy are seeking comment from medical authorities, the pharmaceutical industry and other stakeholders. They hope to introduce final legislation before the August congressional recess. — Joanne Silberner

A Genetic Cause of Age-Related Blindness

July 18, 2006 — Dutch scientists have discovered a gene they say causes most cases of age-related blindness. Their report is in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The leading cause of blindness among seniors is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. The newly discovered gene may cause more than half of all AMD cases. So a drug that interfered with the gene's bad effects might prevent a lot of blindness.

The gene makes a protein that damps down inflammation. Scientists think the variant form works less efficiently. That allows inflammation to disrupt eye cells. Debris from damaged cells eventually disrupts sight.

The Dutch researchers studied 7,600 older people in a suburb of Rotterdam. Those who had two copies of the AMD gene were seven to 18 times more likely to get the disease over an eight-year period. Those who had the gene and also smoked had 34 times the risk of blindness. — Richard Knox

FDA Improves New Implantable Contraceptive

July 18, 2006 — The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new, implantable contraceptive similar to one that was available until a few years ago.

Called Implanon, the contraceptive is an implantable match-stick-sized rod that goes under the skin of a woman's upper arm. The rod delivers a low dose of the female hormone progestin. It's effective for three years unless the woman has it removed sooner.

Implanon is similar to Norplant, which had six implantable rods. Norplant manufacturer Wyeth pulled that product off the market four years ago, after complaints about scarring and other problems. The company cited a limitation in raw materials.

Later this year Implanon manufacturer Organon will start training programs for health providers on how to insert the device. The company expects the new contraceptive to be widely available in 2007. It's already available in some other countries. — Joanne Silberner

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