December 2010


OK, so I was a bit wide of the mark in my 2010 predictions, coming in at just 13.5 percent accuracy. But I went out on quite a limb with some of them so I feel I can still hold my head high.

No guts, no glory.

In the coming year, it’s fairly safe to say that the health care reform law will be in the news once again, and possibly this battle will be even longer and more hard-fought that last year’s was. Predicting the end game will be a tough call.

The Republicans seem ready to use any and all tools at their disposal to knock this thing back and put their own version in its place. So the outcome will depend on how steadfast the Democrats turn out to be.

With that caveat in mind, I’m going to predict that:

1. The health reform law won’t be repealed in its entirety, but it will be substantially gutted. The centerpiece of it, which is mandatory health insurance coverage, will go away. That means that the other, more popular provision of requiring insurers to take people with pre-existing conditions, will either be dropped or radically modified. It is possible that people may be able to opt out with the understanding that any coverage purchased will not cover pre-existing conditions for a pre-determined period of, for example, five years. In any case, I think it’s clear that the GOP will use the reform law to leverage other parts of their agenda.

2. A new health care reality show will soar to the top of the TV ratings. It will feature a well known celebrity, which will change week to week, who chooses a deserving patient and offers to pay all of his or her medical bills.

3. A Website is launched that allows people to have health care providers bid for treatment of a particular elective health care procedure, such as plastic surgery. The member posts the job, and then weighs the bids , along with the qualitifications of the participating provider.

4. Wikileaks creates another major stir when it releases bombshell secret emails from a major health insurance company. The revelations lead to congressional reforms that garner bipartison support, but President Obama stuns the country by vetoing legislation that was thought to be a sure thing.

5. Researchers finally identify the source of autism, which leads to new treatments and attracts funding for even more indepth research projects.

6. Harvard University scientists create vegetable crops that are twice to three times as cold tolerable as existing types. The discovery opens up new farmland and allows orange trees to grow as far north as southern Illinois. Farmland in Florida and California, though, takes a hit.

7. Veterinary researchers create an artificial heart for dogs. The lifespan of dogs jumps, and over the next decade some canines live to 35 years old.

8. A pharmaceutical company comes out with an exercise pill that produces all the same benefits as a one-hourt workout, but without lifting a finger.

9. Dental science takes a giant leap forward when researchers discover a gentic “switch” that can be activiated to help people grow a third set of teeth, or even a fourth or fifth set, if necessary.

10. Obesity in the U.S. plunges when the Centers for Disease Control changes the definition of disorder. Although the medical community cries foul, Americans breathe a sigh of relief and head to the fast food chains in record numbers.

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Those of us in the writing and reporting biz like to take a crack at predicting what’s in store for the upcoming year – in my case, focusing on health care.

A lot of people whip up a batch of predictions over the holidays, and then sweep them under next year’s Christmas tree when they don’t come to pass. Not me.

Next week I’ll have a fresh crop of health care forecasts for 2011. This week, I take a look at how I fared in 2010, with the top 10 predictions I made last December.

I want to say right up front that my seventh prediction, that researchers will discover Chihuahuas can be trained to sense blood sugar problems, digestive disorders and strokes up to a week in advance, turned out to be off the mark. There is some evidence that dogs can sniff out disease, but I haven’t seen anything about Chihuahuas specifically.

I’m giving myself a total miss on this prediction. As for the others:

1. Swine flu spikes again in spring and there’s a new round of concern, and vaccinations. But the virus’ spread levels off in April and virtually disappears by May. There will be very few new cases over the summer non-flu season, unlike 2009. Assessment: 80 percent. Comment: I was pretty close on this one.

2. An even more watered-down version of the health care reform bill passes, but the Democratic victory dance is short lived. Most of the provisions don’t go into effect for years, and the subject virtually vanishes from the news. There’s almost no impact on mid-term elections. Assessment: 50 percent. Comment: The new law did in fact remain in the news. But it was not a big issue in the mid-term elections, in spite of what you may have heard in the mainstream media.

3. A major breakthrough in cancer research is announced in July. It involves the concept of using the body’s own immune system to kill off cancer cells. This approach has been a focus of research for years, but it is finally honed to the point where it is widely applicable to many different variants of the disease. Assessment: 0 percent. This is a fertile area of research but unfortunately there were no big breakthroughs.

4. Medical video conferencing begins to score big as insurers realize that they can service more customers faster through online “virtual visits.” This proves to work well for routine matters, along with self-reported patient data for things like blood pressure and blood sugar. Assessment: 5 percent. This is coming, but it’s still too early. I did have a conversation with a United Healthcare exec this fall who told me that this type of service will be rolled out, but slowly.

5. Software for virtual mental health counseling becomes a big hit when a program is designed that allows verbal interaction. The effectiveness of this “Doc-in-a-Box” is slammed by the American Psychological Association. Assessment: 0 percent. Comment: Ouch.

6. A shocking new study finds that coffee is a medical miracle beverage that helps prevent, and treat, a wide range of health issues. Coffee houses across the country begin offering some simple clinical services by physician assistants along with a steaming cup of joe. Assessment: 0 percent. Comment: Wishful thinking.

7. (See Chihuahua note, above.)

8. Researchers discover that bean sprouts aren’t really healthy at all. A new kind of breakfast cereal that incorporates sprouts doesn’t sell well, and is finally pulled from the shelves. Assessment: 0 percent. Comment: See comment No.5.

9. Sleeping under a pyramid becomes a new health craze. Bed, Bath & Beyond comes up with a unit you can hang from your ceiling over your bed, and it becomes the hottest new gift for Christmas 2010. Assessment: 0 percent. Comment: I may recycle this prediction again for 2011 since I have all these pyramids I have been unable to pawn off as Christmas gifts.

10. A new type of toothpaste supposedly allows you to brush just once a week. But dentists are outraged and make appearances on TV shows to oppose the product, from Oprah to Jerry Springer. Assessment: 0 percent. Comment: Thinking of coming up with this product myself. Stay tuned.

Total accuracy rate: 13.5 percent (135 percentage points divided by 10).

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marccelus/5097446999/

Christmas is a season of joy, hope and charity. It is, we are reminded again and again, the most wonderful time of the year.

But try telling that to someone who has just brought last year’s sets of Christmas lights down from the attic only to find them a tangled ball that requires an hour of work to straighten out. And then when you finally plug them in, you find that none of them light up.

And it turns out that the Christmas tree you so carefully picked out at the Home Depot lot has a slightly curved trunk so that after you place it in the stand, it looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

And the dog concludes that this is a tree like any other tree outside, and therefore begins to use it as a … Well, you get the picture.

To top it off, your spectacular holiday dinner devolves into something more like Festivus, in which there is the annual Airing of Grievances. Not only is uncle Joey gnawing a turkey bone, he also has a bone to pick with you.

Every year, psychologists and family experts offer advice on how to get through the Season of Joy with minimal stress and maximum satisfaction. I am neither a psychologist nor a famly expert. But that hasn’t stopped me from coming up with seven meaningless tips of my own to make this holiday season pure magic.

1. You’ve probably heard that it is more blessed to give than it is to receive. Therefore, don’t feel guilty when someone else gives you three gifts, and you forgot to get them anything at all. You’re actually doing them a huge favor by letting them have all the pleasure.

2. This is a time of Goodwill to men. So why not do most of your shopping this year at the thrift store? That used sweater unwrapped by your father-in-law is all the more comfortable because it’s been broken in.

3. Prepare a stress-free hors d’oeuvre menu. Forget about all that complicated stuff you saw on the Food Channel and go with the Cheese Whiz, Ritz crackers and Spanish peanuts. Always keep in mind the three most important Christmas food groups: fat, salt and sugar.

4. Please don’t complain that your husband is watching too much football. (I figured I’d throw this one in, hoping the wife would see it.)

5. Don’t drink and drive. This is why God created 16-year-olds. That newly licensed son or daughter of yours can’t wait to get behind the wheel, and with your pleasant holiday buzz, you probably won’t even be pumping the imaginary brakes while sitting in the passenger seat on the way home.

6. You may have thoughts of hopelessness or despair. Don’t worry, this is normal. And remember, it’s nothing compared to how you’ll feel when the credit card bill arrives in January.

7. Don’t put pressure on yourself to provide fabulous holiday meals. I have three words for you: Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut. OK that’s five words, but you get the idea.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/flickr4jazz/4217535086/

Americans’ stress levels may be soaring as a result of the sour economy, but most tend to believe that their problems aren’t filtering down to their kids. But they’re wrong, a new survey by the American Psychological Association contends.

Among teens 13-17, 45 percent said they were more worried this year about issues like family finances, and school related problems. But only a quarter of the parents surveyed (28 percent) said they believed their teens’ stress levels had shot up.

The numbers fall more closely into line as the survey focused on younger kids. For example, 26 percent of tweens (8-12) were more worried about these issues this year – 17 percent of parents said their kids were more worried.

Parents can’t seem to grasp the idea, according to the APA, that their kids are concerned about family finances. Among both groups, 30 percent of the tweens and teens were worried about money, but only 18 percent of their parents recognized their fears.

The stress results in headaches, trouble sleeping, and out of whack eating habits.

Meanwhile, huge minorities of adults report bouts with stress over the last month, including sleeplessness (47 percent); anger (45 percent); fatigue (43 percent); lack of motivation and energy (40 percent) and headaches (34 percent).

“It’s clear that parents do not fully appreciate the impact that stress is having on their kids,” says psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice.

“What we’re seeing with stress is in line with existing research about parents’ perception of their kids’ engagement in risky behaviors. Parents often under report drug use, depression and sexual activity in their children. Now it appears the same may be true for stress.”

The images we see on TV and on the Internet are of tweens and teens who are preoccupied with what video games they’re going to play, who they’re going to date, and whether they’re going to make the soccer team or cheerleading squad. The truth is more complex than most parents realize.

And on a related note: We should probably be bracing for more economic fallout ahead.

Because with the awful jobs report issued Friday, there’s no sign that stress – particularly the middle class variety – will be easing off soon.

Even if you take some cheer in the additional jobs that have been added in the last several years, household sustaining full-time positions that paid around $50,000 a year are giving way to part time jobs that pay more like $20,000, as former Reagan administration budget director David Stockman explained in his CNBC appearance on Friday.

We know that the long recession has had a negative impact on the mental health of adults struggling to make ends meet. Here’s evidence that the issues may already be slipping down to the next generation as well.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/emagic/56206100/