Archive for March, 2011

4 Tips for Car Seat Safety

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Image from www.baby-safety-concerns.com

Most parents now know that car seats are essential for young children riding in cars. In today’s post, I am going to provide some updated information and lesser-known tips that might help keep your kids safer in their car seats. Does all of this matter? I think so. A recent article on healthychildren.org says that deaths in motor vehicle crashes are still the leading cause of death for young children:

While the rate of deaths in motor vehicle crashes in children under age 16 has decreased substantially – dropping 45 percent between 1997 and 2009 – it is still the leading cause of death for children ages 4 and older. Counting children and teens up to age 21, there are more than 5,000 deaths each year. Fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg; for every fatality, roughly 18 children are hospitalized and more than 400 are injured seriously enough to require medical treatment.

So how can you keep your children safer?

1. Keep Children Rear-Facing As Long As Possible

Parents often switch their toddlers into forward facing seats on or around their first birthdays. For many years, the AAP and others have recommended that children remain rear facing until they were at least 1 year old and 22 pounds. Many parents and caregivers thought that this meant that this was the appropriate age and weight to turn children around. I know plenty of parents who were elated to turn their children’s car seats around so that their kids could “see something” or so that their legs would not be cramped. Unfortunately, this is just not safe.

The new AAP recommendations, released last week, are grounded in safety research and the advice that many car seat advocates have emphasized for years. These recommendations call for children to remain rear facing as long as possible – at least until they are two years old and often beyond. A recent New York Times article explains that a 2007 study from the University of Virginia found “…that children under 2 are 75 percent less likely to suffer severe or fatal injuries in a crash if they are facing the rear.” That is a pretty compelling statistic.

I am excited about this new recommendation because I hope that it will encourage parents to consider keeping their children rear facing for much longer. I have kept both of my children rear facing far beyond their first birthdays.  In fact, my two year old is still happily rear facing. We have a car seat that allows rear facing until 45 pounds and my daughter is only about 23 pounds now. I doubt that she will stay rear facing until she is 45 pounds, but she will certainly stay that way for as long as possible.

My decisions were based on both safety and selfish reasons. First, the selfish reason: my first child was a kid who would sometimes fall asleep in the car on long trips. I realized that once we faced him forward his head would hang uncomfortably if he fell asleep and he would be much less likely to rest comfortably then rear facing when he was reclined enough to slumber with full support to his head and neck. Second, the safety reason is that we have relied on the assistance and expertise of Debbi Baer when installing our car seats for several years. Ms. Baer, “a labor and delivery nurse in Baltimore who has been a car safety advocate for children for more than 30 years,” is quoted extensively in the New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/health/policy/22carseat.html), along with her daughter “Dr. Alisa Baer, a pediatrician at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York.” Dr. Baer told the Times “she felt so strongly that if a parent wants to install a forward-facing seat for a child younger than 2, “I tell them, ‘If you really want to make a stupid decision for your child, you can do it, but I’m not going to help you.’ ”” Her mother’s attitude seems from our experience to be the same!

2. Don’t Rush Any of the Transitions – Car Seat to Booster to Seatbelt

In the The New York Times article , the AAP policy’s lead author says

“Our recommendations are meant to help parents move away from gospel-held notions that are based on a child’s age,” Dr. Durbin said. “We want them to recognize that with each transition they make, from rear-facing to forward-facing, to booster seats, there is a decline in the safety of their child. That’s why we are urging parents to delay these transitions for as long as possible.”

Therefore the same prudence should apply in making the transition from car seat to booster and ultimately to a regular seat.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has created a nice flyer about the new recommendations.

The advice seems to boil down to a few key elements.

  • Keep kids rear facing as long as allowed by the seat.
  • Forward facing children should be in a 5-point harness as long as the seat allows
  • Only transition to a belt-positioning booster when children have outgrown the car seat with a harness
  • Keep kids in a belt-positioning booster until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall and 8-12 years old

3. Skip the Coats – Cover Kids Instead

Winter weather creates another potential danger about which many parents are unaware.  One of the keys to car seat safety is having straps that fit snuggly on the child. If kids are dressed in bulky winter clothing – particularly puffy type coats – those clothes can compress in an accident and leave the straps too loose for kids to be safety secured. To counter this dangerous possibility, most car seat experts recommend that parents always remove winter coats before strapping their children into a car seat. Instead, they recommend placing a coat or a blanket on top of the child after the child is safely and snuggly secured in the car seat. This way, the child stays warm without having any risk of the straps being too loose. If this seems to be a hassle, there is a whole group of both small and commercial companies and individuals out there who make poncho type coats that can be pulled up for the child to be strapped in safely. It is also a good idea to be in the habit of checking the snugness of the straps every time you strap your child.  For more details about winter coats in cars, check out this article.

4. Check the Installation!

All of the suggestions above are critical for safety, but none more so than making sure that your car seat is installed properly in the first place. If the car seat is not installed safely, having the child in the correct seat and having the child buckled properly will not be of nearly as much help. It is a commonly quoted statistic that 70% or more of children are not properly restrained. The good news is that help is available. At seatcheck.org you can find a listing of places near to you where you can get free or low cost assistance in properly installing your car seat. These experts can also check to make sure that the seats you have already installed are installed properly.

You may also want to watch this video from Dr. Alisa Baer, “the Car Seat Lady” -

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULJ8Vx79Vv4&feature=player_embedded

Do you have other safety tips for car seats?  If so, share them with the rest of us!

Medical Technology and Patient Safety: EMR’s, COW’s, iPads, etc. – are they really doing the job? Blog Series – Part I

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Medical Technology - source: Siemens.com

This is the first installment of a series of posts on issues relating to new advances in medical technology and how they may affect patient health and safety – not always for the good. Unless you live in a cave or just don’t care, you must have noticed news reports about how the medical industry is awash in the creation and implementation of new technologies. Presumably these new medical tech toys and gadgets are intended to advance the timely, enhanced, cost-effective delivery of healthcare with the end point being improved patient care and patient safety. The question is – do they always do that or can they, in fact, be tools the lead to patient injuries and – at times -even death?

I recently came across a posting by Dr. William L. Roper, MPH, CEO of the University of North Carolina Health Care System, which was in essence a transcript of a speech he gave at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 2011. Among his other vast accomplishments, in the spring of 1986, he was nominated by President Reagan and confirmed by the Senate for the position of administrator of the federal Health Care Financing Administration, with responsibility for the Medicare and Medicaid programs nationally. For the previous three years, he served on the White House domestic policy staff.

I bring Dr. Roper’s recent remarks to your attention since they are the inspiration for this series of blogs. While Dr. Roper’s address did not specifically address topics such as EMR’s, COW’s (still wondering how a cow fits into this topic? Stay tuned!), and the like, the following selected excerpts are the seeds of thought for the present series:

I have the job of leading an academic medical enterprise, and am challenged by the task of putting lofty ideas into practice at the local level. I remain very committed to the effort, but we are daily challenged to put the best ideas into practice.

The Institute of Medicine, under Sam Their’s and then Ken Shine’s leadership, played a very important role across the decade of the 1990s, defining “quality” in health care, and pointing to problems in quality and patient safety. Bill Richardson led a multi-year IOM initiative that included the groundbreaking report, To Err is Human in 2000, and then Crossing the Quality Chasm in 2001.

These reports were a clarion call for action – especially making the point that a systems approach was required to deal effectively with these issues.

While Dr. Roper’s speech was, in large part, an historical analysis of progress in the Medicare healthcare delivery system, it is also a well-versed commentary on the so-called advances in medicine for patient care and safety. Why else have so many toiled for so long in trying to find system-failures and methodologies for eradicating those failures and thereby improving the delivery of safe, efficient and effective healthcare?

Dr. Roper and so many other dedicated healthcare professionals are faced daily with the same issue – “…challenged by the task of putting lofty ideas into practice at the local level . . . [W]e are daily challenged to put the best ideas into practice.” Put another way – at least for me – taking public healthcare policy and practices and making a better widget.

As these lofty concepts were debated, published and analyzed, technology streaked along with its new bells and whistles at what some might call an amazing – almost mystifying – pace. Did you really envision yourself 25 years ago sitting with your iPhone or iPad and scouring the world’s news, chatting with your friends and followers on the other side of the planet, watching the latest streaming video of March Madness or sharing every random thought you have on Twitter or Facebook?

What has technology done to improve healthcare?

The answer, in short, is – some amazing things and some not so amazing things have taken place in terms of technological advances in healthcare. Unfortunately, as we will explore in this series, some of these technological advances have led to some catastrophic results for patients. One need look no further than how the medical institutions rushed to implement the newest, shiniest and “best” radiology machines and through their haste left in their wake scores of maimed and dead patients. We reported on this investigation by NY Times reporter, Walt Bogdanich  in Eye Opener, over a year ago.

Just over the course of the last year or so, our firm has been involved in case after case in which this issue of medical technology and patient care/safety keeps rearing its ugly and devastating head. We will share with you (leaving identifying information obscured as we are required to do) tales of just how medical technology can impact – positively and (unfortunately) negatively patient health and safety. We’ll analyze and discuss our views on just how well medical technology and its implementation (more the latter) have, in our view, negatively impacted – all too often – patient health and safety. We invite you to follow along as we consider the good, the bad and the ugly of medical technology such as EMR’s, COW’s, iPads and the like. Please join us and share your comments along the way.

Some related posts to get you started:

The Radiation Boom – Radiation Offers New Cures and Ways to Do Harm

FDA Unveils Initiative To Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging

At Hearing on Radiation, Calls for Better Oversight

Initiative to Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging

The Story of How a New York Times Reporter – Walt Bogdanich – Has Made a Real Difference in Medical Device Radiation Safety

The Week in Review: did you miss last week’s posts on health, safety, medicine, law and healthcare? A sneak preview of the week ahead.

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Eye Opener - Nash & Associates Blog

This week we are starting a weekly posting of our blogs of this past week, some key blogs of interest to our more than 6,500 monthly readers, and a sneak preview of what’s coming next week. We would really like for you to join our community of readers, so don’t forget to hit the RSS Feedburner button or subscribe to our blog, Eye Opener. We share with you our thoughts, insights and analysis of what’s new in the law, the world of law and medicine, health, patient and consumer safety as well as a host of other topics that we deal with as lawyers on a daily basis in trying to serve the needs of our clients.

For those of you on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, we have a vibrant presence on those social networks as well. Hit the icon(s) of your choice and become part of our ever-growing social network community. Share your thoughts, share our posts, give us your feedback on what YOU would like to hear about.

This Past Week

Birth Defect Updates: Warnings About Opioid Use Before and During Pregnancy In this post, Sarah Keogh, explored a new report which is vital information for women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant. Opiods, narcotic pain killers such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone, are a valuable part of a physician’s drug armamentarium, but they can have significant implications for a fetus if taken during pregnancy or even just before a woman become pregnant. Read Sarah’s important piece, be informed and learn why you should discuss the use of any such drugs with your obstetrician/gynecologist before taking them.

 

Doctors Disciplined by Their Own Hospitals Escape Actions by Licensing Boards. Who’s at Fault? Brian Nash, founder of the firm, writes about a serious problem with this country’s medical licensing boards, who have failed, at an alarming rate, to take disciplinary action against physicians, who have had their hospital privileges revoked, suspended or curtailed for issues such as sub-standard care, moral transgressions and the like. Public Citizen brought this story to light; we analyze the issue and share our thoughts on this serious patient health and safety issue.

Decreasing Obesity Risks in Children: Another Benefit of Breastfeeding A mom herself and an advocate for public health childhood obesityand safety throughout her legal career, Sarah Keogh reports on a recent study covered by the Baltimore Sun about the long-term benefits of breastfeeding for at least six months. The issue for many, however, is – how can a family of two income earners afford to do this? Does our society and the workplace really lend itself to this practice? Read Sarah’s compelling piece and share your experience and thoughts.

The Week Ahead

Sneak preview of what’s ahead during the week of March 28, 2011:

medical technology

Brian Nash begins a series on the issue of medical technology and patient health/safety. Is the medical community being properly trained in the proper and safe use of all the new medical devices that are hitting our hospitals, clinics and medical offices? Is the rush to have the newest, shiniest and “best” new medical device really advancing the safe and effective delivery of healthcare in our country? Here’s a sneak preview…

Dr. Roper and so many other dedicated healthcare professionals are faced daily with the same issue – “…challenged by the task of putting lofty ideas into practice at the local level. I remain very committed to the effort, but we are daily challenged to put the best ideas into practice.” Put another way – at least for me – taking public healthcare policy and practices and making a much better widget.

As these lofty concepts were debated, published and analyzed, technology streaked along with its new bells and whistles at what some might call an amazing – almost mystifying – pace. Did you really envision yourself 25 years ago sitting with your iPhone or iPad and scouring the world’s news, chatting with your friends and followers on the other side of the planet, watching the latest streaming video of March Madness or sharing every random thought you have on Twitter or Facebook?

Some top posts you may have missed

What happens when your surgeon has been up all night and you are being wheeled into the operating room to be his or her next surgical case? We looked at an article from The New England Journal of Medicine that addressed this patient safety issue and made recommendations for change.  See our posting entitled A Surgeon’s Sleep Deprivation and Elective Surgery-Not a good (or safe) combination.

Dr. Kevin Pho, who is the well known editor and contributor of KevinMD.com, wrote a piece in which he espoused his belief that medical malpractice cases really do not improve patient safety. Having read this piece and finding that this was just too much to digest, Brian Nash wrote a counter-piece entitled Malpractice System Doesn’t Improve Patient Safety – Oh Really? What this led to was cross-posting by Dr. Kevin Pho on our blog, Eye Opener, and our posting on his blog. Our blog post (as best I can tell) led to one of the all-time highest postings of comments by readers of KevinMD. One thing all participants in the “debate” learned – we are both passionate about our positions. Read what led to this firestorm.

 

Decreasing Obesity Risks in Children: Another Benefit of Breastfeeding

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Image from fooducate.com

In the United States today, one of the major health problems is obesity. The CDC reports that “[i]n 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%.”  The number of both adults and children who are obese is huge and continues to rise dramatically.  The CDC website provides maps that show just how prevalent this problem is in our country. Particularly troubling is that “[t]hirty-three states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%; nine of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%).  This represents an enormous number of people in our country who are at risk for major health complications, such as “cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.”

While there has been an emphasis in our country on various ways to decrease these obesity statistics (including improving nutrition and increasing exercise), I wonder whether additional emphasis should be paid to children being given a great start to health. A recent article in the Baltimore Sun caught my attention. The article explains how diabetic moms, including those who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy but are not otherwise diabetic, are both more likely to give birth to a larger than average baby and also how their child is “more likely to become obese in childhood.”  The good news, the article explains, is that:

…a new study says that if you breastfeed your baby for at least six months, your child will be no more likely to put on weight than those whose moms are not diabetic.

This is just one more example of how breastfeeding for at least six months can dramatically improve your child’s chances of lifelong health.  Through breastfeeding alone, these moms can erase the increased risk that these children will become obese.

What they found appears to be a real advantage for breastfeeding: If the babies had been breastfed for six months or more, children born to diabetic moms looked nearly the same as the children of non-diabetic moms. And they were no more likely to be obese.

On the other hand, children who were breastfed for less than six months — and who had been exposed to diabetes in the womb — had significantly higher BMIs, thicker waists and stored more fat around their midsections than the other children in the study.

While I was excited to read about one more reason to support breastfeeding, I was concerned about whether this is a realistic choice for many families in our country.  Many moms who are committed to breastfeeding their children and who are successful at the start, do not continue breastfeeding for at least six months. The CDC Breastfeeding Report Card for 2010 says that “…3 out of every 4 new mothers in the United States now starts out breastfeeding… However, rates of breastfeeding at 6 and 12 months as well as rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 3 and 6 months remain stagnant and low.”  The national average is that while 75% of moms have breastfed, only 43% are breastfeeding at all at 6 months and only a mere 13.3% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.  At 3 months, a time when infants would not have started solid food, only 33% of moms are still exclusively breastfeeding.  This means that there is a large drop off from what moms do when their babies are born and what they are doing by the time their babies reach 3 months.

However, the study about diabetes found that at least six months of breastfeeding was essential in protecting these kids from the increased risks of obesity. From both personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I suspect that many families are facing hard decisions about employment and breastfeeding. I suspect that a significant part of the large drop off between the numbers of moms’ breastfeeding at birth and those breastfeeding exclusively at 3 months has to do with employment. Given that the US lags so far behind other countries in paid parental leave, most moms have no choice but to go back to work full-time by the time their infants are 3 months (if not earlier).  Many moms face no choice at that point but to stop or severely limit breastfeeding, as few employers offer the time, space or scheduling to truly make moms successful at the difficult job of trying to pump while working.

I believe that the health care costs of treating individuals with obesity and all of the associated health problems should be examined against the costs of providing more complete support to new families.  What do you think?  Could employers better support breastfeeding in an attempt to increase the number of healthy children whose risks of obesity are lowered? Do you think that lack of paid leave or increased support in the workplace for breastfeeding is really the reason for decreased breastfeeding or are there other factors at play?

 

 

Doctors Disciplined by Their Own Hospitals Escape Action by Licensing Boards. Who’s at Fault?

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Public Citizen logo

Public Citizen recently posted a report that revealed an extremely disturbing failure by licensing boards and/or hospitals to take appropriate disciplinary action against physicians, who have had their hospital privileges revoked, suspended or restricted.

At the heart of this revelation is the fact that when a physician does have action taken against his/her hospital privileges, the hospital is required to report such negative, adverse action to the jurisdiction’s medical licensing board. Nevertheless, as Public Citizen reports, during the time period being analyzed by Public Citizen (1990 to 2009), almost 6,000 such physicians have escaped any disciplinary action by state medical boards.

Of 10,672 physicians listed in the NPDB (National Practitioner Data Bank) for having clinical privileges revoked or restricted by hospitals, just 45 percent of them also had one or more licensing actions taken against them by state medical boards. That means 55 percent of them – 5,887 doctors – escaped any licensing action by the state. The study examined the NPDB’s Public Use File from its inception in 1990 to 2009.

For anyone familiar with how hospitals operate, it usually takes some egregious conduct for a hospital to take action against one of its privileged physicians. Threats of lawsuits by the physician against the institution are many times the first defense taken by a physician causing many hospitals to back-down from taking any disciplinary action. Often, those called upon to review the conduct of their fellow physicians are hesitant to discipline their peers too harshly for a multitude of reasons – not the least of which is the concept of “there but for the grace of God go I.”

That being said, how is it that when such an extraordinary step such as revocation, suspension or curtailment of hospital privileges does take place, these physicians escape being disciplined by their state medical boards?

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and overseer of the study, offers these thoughts:

One of two things is happening, and either is alarming. Either state medical boards are receiving this disturbing information from hospitals but not acting upon it, or much less likely, they are not receiving the information at all. Something is broken and needs to be fixed.

While I personally don’t purport to know the “reporting requirements” for all medical licensing boards throughout the United States, let me share with you the reporting requirements and legislative mandate of two jurisdictions with which I am familiar.

In Maryland, one need only look at the Maryland Board of Physicians (this state’s regulatory body) “responsible for licensing and disciplining physicians, physician assistants, respiratory care practitioners, licensed radiation therapists, radiographers, nuclear medicine technologists, radiologist assistants, and polysomnographic technologists” Hospital Reporting Requirements FAQ to get the answer as to whether or not such hospital actions are a “reportable event.”

By law, hospitals must report to the Board – within 10 days of action – any action taken that immediately affects the privileges of a practitioner or any other health professional regulated by the Board, based on any of the grounds listed in Sections 14-404 (Physicians), 14-5A-17 (Respiratory Care), 14-5B-14 (Radiation Therapists, Radiographers, Nuclear Medicine Technologists, and Radiologist Assistants), 15-314 (Physician Assistants), and 14-5C-17 (Polysomnographic Technologists) of the Medical Practice Act. These matters generally relate to questions of competence, performance, unprofessional practices and unethical practices.

In the District of Columbia, once you work your way through the maze of online links, you eventually find that it is the Board of Medicine, “a division within the DC Department of Health, Health Regulation and Licensing Administration (HRLA), that “has the responsibility to regulate the practice of medicine in the District of Columbia.

What is interesting is that on its website, the D.C. Board of Medicine takes pride in the fact that in 2010, Public Citizen, the very source of criticism of the various licensing agencies in the most recent 2011 report being discussed here, listed D.C. as No. 16 in the nation in “living up to their obligations to protect patients from doctors who are practicing substandard medicine.” A review of the 2010 report by Public Citizen reveals that D.C. had previously been ranked No. 42 in terms of “meeting its obligations” to “protect patients from doctors…practicing substandard medicine.”

So exactly where is the proverbial ball being dropped? Is it the hospital that is failing to report its adverse action to the medical board? Is it the medical board, having been told of the adverse action, that sweeps the sins of the offending physician under the rug? Whichever it is – and it’s most likely a combination of the two to some extent but more likely the latter – those who suffer in the final analysis are patients, who unknowingly come under the care of these questionable physicians.

We are not talking here about a physician, who is otherwise a competent, skilled practitioner in his or her area of specialty, but who has a “bad day” and renders substandard care to a patient. Unfortunately, that happens with some degree of regularity across the nation every day. For a hospital to go to the point of bringing one of its own up on disciplinary charges and taking adverse action against that physician is a major step – one reflecting by necessity such a level of incompetency, a pattern of unsafe, bad care, outrageous conduct and the like that it must call into question the overall competency, integrity and character of that physician. Then, if that is the case – which it clearly must be – why are such physicians allowed to simply pull-up stakes and move on elsewhere to practice their trade? How is this in the interest of patient safety, which is precisely one of the main reasons for the very existence of medical licensing boards?

Public Citizen didn’t just report the findings of its analysis; it did something about it.

Public Citizen today sent the report to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, urging the agency’s Office of Inspector General to reinstitute investigations of state medical boards, something it has not done since 1993. Public Citizen also is notifying the 33 medical boards that have had the worst records in disciplining these doctors.

We commend Public Citizen for its investigation and report. While it is no doubt important that this problem comes to light, it is even more important that it be corrected – and soon. Will Secretary Sebelius take action? Will the licensing boards clean-up their act now that their misdeeds have been brought to the public’s attention? If hospitals are, in fact, not reporting their adverse actions, will there be repercussions for this failure? When will medical boards do what they are constituted to do – protect the safety and well-being of patientsnot when they feel like it, but when they are mandated to do it?

Birth Defect Updates: Warnings about opioid use before and during pregnancy

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Photo credit: Getty Images

Recently, I wrote about studies concerning the increased risk of birth defects caused by smoking.  A recent press release from the CDC draws attention to a newly discovered link between the use of certainly prescription opioid pain relievers by a woman shortly before conception or in the first trimester of pregnancy to an increase in birth defects.  Similar to the evidence about smoke exposure, the research identifies the period before conception and during early pregnancy as critical.  I think that these findings raise questions about the use of these drugs by woman of child-bearing age as the critical time period may be one when a woman is not aware that she is pregnant or going to become pregnant.

Use of these opioid pain relievers, such as codeine and oxycodone, “was linked to several types of congenital heart defects as well as spina bifida, hydrocephaly, congenital glaucoma and gastroschisis.”  According to the press release, the study, which was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “found that women who took prescription opioid medications just before or during early pregnancy had about two times the risk for having a baby with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (one of the most critical heart defects) as women who were not treated with these opioid medications.”   Overall the CDC statement suggests that the risk of these defects is not that large for any individual woman given the rarity of these conditions, but that it is important information nonetheless since the defects are very significant.

Cerebral Palsy rates dropping in U.S.

In happier news, overall rates of cerebral palsy are dropping in the United States.  The cause of the decline is linked to improved care during pregnancy and at birth.  According to Medical News Today, a new “…article published in The Journal of Pediatrics indicates that the rates of cerebral palsy have declined dramatically in the past 15 years.” This is exciting news not just because it means that many fewer children are born with a devastating injury but also because it is an indicator of a general improvement in the care provided to mothers and babies before, during and immediately following birth.

 

 

Smoking and Secondhand Smoke Increase Risk for Birth Defects and Stillbirth – Even before pregancy

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Photo courtesy of Impact Lab

Recently, I came across several news articles regarding risks that can lead to birth defects.  While it has long been known that smoking during pregnancy is not healthy for the mom or her developing baby, a new study is showing that a mom who smokes during pregnancy creates a huge risk of heart defects in her baby.  A Reuters article explains that the potential for harm caused by smoking during the first trimester of pregnancy, a time when many women may not even realize they are pregnant, is significant:

Specifically, women who smoked early in pregnancy were 30 percent more likely to give birth to babies with obstructions in the flow of blood from the heart to the lungs, and nearly 40 percent more likely to have babies with openings in the upper chambers of their hearts.

While smoking later in pregnancy can also cause birth defects, it is the critical period in early pregnancy when organ development occurs that causes the risk to be so significant at that time.

The Reuters article goes on to explain that the new study, in the journal Pediatrics, does not explain precisely why smoking so dramatically increases the risk of heart defects. However, given the risk, women not smoking before or during early pregnancy could decrease the number of children born with these defects.

A news release from the CDC adds that this study and other research suggest that if women quit smoking before or very early in pregnancy, they could avoid as many as 100 cases of the obstruction type of heart defect and 700 cases of abnormal openings in the upper heart chambers each year in the United States.

This is yet another great reason for woman to quit smoking as soon as possible and certainly before trying to get pregnant.

Secondhand Smoke Risks to Your Baby

We cannot let spouses, partners or other people in the mothers’ lives off the hook when it comes to smoking cessation.  A blog article on The Chart from CNN discusses a new study, also from the journal Pediatrics, which gives a convincing argument why woman must avoid secondhand smoke during and even before pregnancy.  The “[r]esearchers found exposure to secondhand smoke increased a non-smoking pregnant woman’s [chances] of having a stillborn by 23 percent, and increased the risk of delivering a baby with birth defects by 13 percent.”  The article went on to explain that the risk of having a stillborn or delivering a baby with birth defects is almost as large for a woman who does not smoke but is exposed to secondhand smoke as for a woman who smoked herself.  The risks of having a stillborn are increased 20-34% when the mother herself is the smoker and the risks of birth defects are increased by 10-34%.

Aren’t these compelling reasons to continue to work hard as a society on prevention and smoking cessation for the young?  It is too late to wait until child-bearing age when women may already be causing unnecessary harm to their unborn children before they know they are pregnant or by sharing their lives with individuals, who are not able to quit smoking fast enough to prevent harm before conception or during early pregnancy.

Nationwide Push to Curb Elective Early Deliveries

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Image by SoulPrintsPhotography

I recently overheard a mother talking about her child’s upcoming birth.  She was pregnant with her fourth child and was a few days away from her due date.  Another mother was asking her about whether she was concerned about when she would go into labor.  The pregnant mother explained that she was scheduled to have a planned caesarean section, since for medical reasons her prior three children had already been born via caesarean section.  What was interesting and surprising about this conversation was that the mother went on to explain that she was scheduled to give birth to the baby a week later, four days after her due date.

The mother clearly stated that she specifically requested a delivery date after her due date.  I was surprised and impressed by this mother’s decision and the explanation that she gave to the other mother about her choice.  She said that her first child was born by unscheduled caesarean section following an attempted induction two weeks after her due date.  She then had each of her subsequent children by planned caesareans – the next on the due date, the third a few days after the due date and this one planned for 4 days after the due date.  She explained that she liked to wait as long as possible before having the caesarean sections for each of her children.  I don’t know if this mom was up to date on the recent research in this area or if she had other reasons that she chose to delay delivery.  However, her choices seem very sound based on current research that shows that too many moms are having elective deliveries before their due dates.  These deliveries before a baby is full term can increase the risk of complications to mother and baby and lead to longer hospital stays.

A recent article on a Wall Street Journal Health Blog discusses the current nationwide push to inform mothers about the risks of elective delivery before 39 weeks of gestation.  Another Wall Street Journal article highlights what a large number of births this might impact as “’early term’ elective inductions…[now] account for about a quarter of births, up from less than 10% in 1990.”  The number of elective deliveries is large and so are the complications:

Now, a growing body of medical evidence indicates that gestation even a few days short of a full 39 weeks can lead to short- and long-term health risks. Public health officials, safety advocates, private insurers and employer groups are stepping up pressure to sharply reduce early term deliveries. The practice drives up costs of neonatal intensive care and leads to a higher rate of caesarean sections. C-sections are more expensive than natural deliveries and result in longer hospital stays and more risks for the mother, including infection. A study last year estimated that reducing early term births to 1.7% could save close to $1 billion annually.

The current research, including a study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, is influencing a campaign to stop doctors and hospitals from allowing elective deliveries before 39 weeks to better protect mothers and babies, as well as to cut unnecessary costs.

What do you think?  I can certainly sympathize with mothers who are uncomfortable at the end of a pregnancy and are ready for delivery.  However, I cannot imagine that many mothers, faced with the information about risks to themselves and their babies, would not be willing to stay pregnant for another week or two.  I wonder if a clear and widespread public education campaign targeted at mothers would not dramatically decrease the number of elective early deliveries?

 

IEP’s: Stand Up for Your Child’s Rights – Be Their Best Advocate

Monday, March 14th, 2011

IEP File Folder from KnowledgePoints.com

Recently I wrote a blog about the general difficulties facing parents who are raising a disabled child. This week I want to address one of those specific guidelines – ensuring a quality and appropriate education for your child. For many children with disabilities, they cannot meet the traditional school criteria because of either mental, physical or other special needs. For such children, an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a crucial step. What is an IEP? As the name implies, it is a written education plan that is specifically tailored to your individual child rather than a general plan used for all children. Keep in mind that an IEP is not something that your disabled child may be entitled to. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that IEP’s be developed for all students with disabilities.

Who creates an IEP? For every child, there is an IEP team which generally consists of the following people – the parents, the child’s teacher, the child’s special education provider, a public agency representative and perhaps other providers such as physical therapists. Depending on the age of the child and the specific disability, the child may also be part of the team. I want to emphasize that while the IEP team is filled with so-called experts in education and disability, the most important person on the team is the parent. There are two key points to keep in mind:  1) you, as the parent, are the best advocate for your child; and 2) never be afraid to stand up to the experts.

On the first point, I encourage you to read as much as possible and become informed on the subject, e.g., what new laws are coming out, what new technologies may be available. Only that way can you truly become an advocate for your child. There are a number of excellent sites on the Internet that give a wealth of information (see links below).

Parents of disabled children tell me that they have learned the hard way that there is only one person who truly cares what happens to their child – and that is the parent (or parents as the case may be). It is easy to go into an IEP meeting thinking that the administrators and teachers have your child’s best interest at heart. That’s not necessarily the case. While these people may be caring and decent people, they have other interests to consider – budgets, time constraints, other students, etc. You are the only one who is truly devoted to getting what is best for your child. Also, you are the one who knows your child best.  Just like when you go into a pediatrician’s office and describe your child’s symptoms and behavior, the same is true when attending an IEP meeting. You have interacted with your child more than anyone else. You see changes, skills, abilities (and disabilities) more than the folks who only see your child at school.  Share your knowledge and make sure the IEP team gets the benefit of your expertise as a parent.

On the second point, it can be difficult as a layperson to question those whom we see as experts. We have all been trained to defer to those with more experience. Unfortunately, some “experts” have been trained to talk down to others. A small personal story — years ago I took my grandmother to the doctor for a small skin rash. The doctor said it was psoriasis. I asked him how he knew it was psoriasis and not eczema, a similar skin condition. I will never forget his answer. “Because,” he said, “I’m a doctor.” He may as well have said, “Shut up and don’t question my expertise.” If someone on your IEP team ever adopts such an attitude with you, stand up to that person and demand answers. It is your child whose future is at issue, not the teacher’s.

As for resources, the rise in awareness of disability and IEP’s has created an entire field of special education law. Not that you need an attorney to obtain an IEP, but you should be aware of your child’s legal rights. One excellent resource that comes highly recommended from parents is Wrightslaw.com, which contains a wealth of information on disability law and special education.

No doubt a number of you have had to deal with IEP issues for your child. What has been effective for you in terms of getting the best plan for your child? What hasn’t worked? What legal entanglements have you run into? What advise do you have so that others may benefit?

Some Source References:

For general information on IEP’s (and one with a special focus on Maryland), I would recommend the following sites:

Maryland State Department of Education

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Education.com

Schaffer v Weast (a summary of the Supreme Court’s decision on burden of proof in IEP matters)

 

 

Spinal Epidural Abscess: A basic primer

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Epidural abscess compressing the spinal cord -courtesy of aafp.org

In a previous blog, I introduced the topic of neck and back pain which can have a host of causes, most of which are mechanical.  This blog attempts to explore an infectious etiology of neck and back pain that can be potentially devastating, resulting in paralysis and even death.

The spine is a complicated structure involving bones, discs, ligaments, muscles, blood vessels and nerves.  It’s two main functions are to provide axial support for the upright stature of the human body and fluid movement of the body parts while also protecting or housing a critical component of the central nervous system, the spinal cord. Oversimplified, the spinal cord is a conglomeration of nerve fibers that act as the “information highway” between the peripheral nerves supplying sensory and motor function to the body parts and the brain. The spinal cord transmits chemical messages from the brain, telling the body what to do and how to function, even functions we are not conscious of doing (digestion, breathing, etc.), and it receives input from all of our senses and interprets the data.  Without the spinal cord or if the spinal cord is affected by an injury, there is disconnect; we lose feeling and movement as well as control of some of our normal unconscious body functions.  The location of the spinal cord damage dictates the level at which the disconnect occurs.  To help you understand the anatomy of the spine, here’s a short video describing the basic anatomy of the spine.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zeo0Im7h4Go

 

An epidural abscess is a collection of pus that occurs as the result of an infectious process involving any part of the  spinal cord from the base of the head to the tailbone; the abscess is located within the protective boney compartment housing the spinal cord, the spinal canal, and the thick outer covering of the spinal cord, the dura.  The dura is comprised of 3 layers, the outer one being very tough, the middle one being very vascular, and the inner one being very “tender.”

Signs and Symptoms:

In the early stages of the infection, a patient will often complain of neck or back pain very specific to the location of the infection, but the pain can be referred due to nerve root irritation.  As the infection grows, it spreads along the axial plane of the spinal canal, but the pressure and swelling of the purulent collection also tends to compress the spinal cord, resulting in numbness, tingling and functional loss below the level of the compression.  This progression can be indolent or rapid, depending on both the virulence of the pathogen and the person’s immune system.  Without emergent treatment, the pus collection can “choke off” the spinal cord and its blood supply, leading to permanent spinal cord injury and paralysis.

How does the infection get there?

Patients who have undergone spinal surgery are at an increased risk of these types of infections, especially during the immediate post-operative period.  Surgical wounds can become infected allowing bacteria to track deep into the tissues and the spine through the operative plane.  If hardware (spinal instrumentation) has been used, these man-made devices become reservoirs or fomites for attachment of the bacteria, and it is extremely difficult to eradicate bacterial pathogens from the hardware.

The bloodstream is another source of migration for bacterial pathogens from peripheral sites (infected gums, endocarditis, bladder infection, skin abscesses/boils) to the spine.  Individuals particularly at risk are those with depleted immune systems (e.g. diabetics, patients with auto-immune diseases on chronic steroids, HIV, etc.) and IV drug abusers (directly inject materials into veins).  Having spinal hardware from a previous spine surgery will increase the risk of seeding to that instrumented site should bacteria become blood-borne.

Direct inoculation can occur if  poor technique is utilized during epidural spinal injections or epidural anaesthesia.  There can also be contiguous spread from adjacent infected tissues (e.g. diskitis, osteomyelitis).

What are the most common pathogens?

Staph aureus, a common skin pathogen, is the most common cause.  It is known to cause skin abscesses/boils, wound infections, sinus infections, bladder infections and even pneumonia!  The relatively recent incidence of MRSA (a very resistent variety of Staph aureus) in the community has changed the way medicine treats common skin ailments; its effect on the incidence and treatment of epidural abscesses has yet to be determined.  If an epidural abscess is suspected, antibiotic coverage for MRSA is now automatically included in the initial treatment due to the bacterial virulence and resistance to treatment.

E. coli ( a common bowel pathogen and cause of bladder infection), fungi (like yeast), and even Mycobacterium tuberculosis are also causes of epidural abscess.  One can also contract mixed infections with aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, depending on the source of the infection (intra-abdominal abscess, perforated appendix).

How is an epidural abscess diagnosed?

The clinician must have a high index of suspicion and keep an open mind.  A thorough history often leads to clues such as recent fevers, a recent skin abscess or cellulitis, IV drug abuse, recent dental extraction or procedure, and neck or back pain without a specific inciting incident.  Physical examination of the patient often reveals point tenderness directly over the affected area of the spine, worse with percussion or tapping on the boney prominences, and often worse in the recumbent position.

Visualization of the spine is best accomplished with an MRI of the spine (above, below and including the tender area); it is non-invasive and very detailed regarding the soft tissues.  Patient weight can be a factor in accessing these machines; they often have a maximum weight limit of 300 lbs.  Many morbidly obese patients, who often have type II diabetes, are at risk for epidural abscesses; they often have to be transported to external facilities for “open MRI” studies.  Claustrophobia can also be a restricting factor, often requiring patient sedation or anaesthesia.  Excruciating pain while lying flat can also be prohibitive.  An alternative study to visualize the spinal cord is a CT-myelogram during which the epidural space is accessed with a spinal needle and dye is injected for visualization under computed tomography.  The CT-myelogram is a higher-risk study and can also be limited by a patient’s weight and sensitivity to contrast dye.  A lumbar puncture should NOT be done since it can lead to spinal cord herniation and permanent spinal injury.

What is the treatment for an epidural abscess?

There are two schools of thought regarding treatment.  One school favors emergent surgical debridement of the abscess along with intravenous antibiotics; this also allows for identification and sensitivity testing of the organism.  The other school suggests that intravenous antibiotics alone can be sufficient if no signs of spinal cord impingement are present; if symptoms progress to the development of neurologic symptoms, then surgery becomes more urgent.

What is the prognosis in epidural abscess?

Prognosis depends on the patient’s underlying medical condition and the degree of spinal cord involvement at the time of diagnosis/intervention.  Obviously, the earlier the intervention and treatment, the better the prognosis; hence, I favor surgical debridement as soon as possible.  Delays in diagnosis often lead to permanent and life-altering neurologic damage and functional loss or even death.  These delays and the permanent neurologic sequellae suffered often become the basis for medical malpractice litigation.