Archive for January 2016

Fertility quiz: How well do you know your body?

January 29, 2016
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Photo by Scott Maxwell

Remember all the rumors that you heard about sexuality and fertility as a teen (or even a 20-something or a 30-something)? It’s hard to sort out fact from fiction.

According to the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) at the Georgetown University Medical Center, an accurate understanding of sexuality and fertility is surprisingly low around the world. That’s why IRH has created an online quiz to probe fertility awareness, called “Know Your Bod,” which poses the challenge: “You live with your body everyday. Do you really know it? Find out.”

The online quiz asks ten questions including the true-or-false query, “A woman will get pregnant only if she has sex on the same day she ovulates?” After you select an answer, the quiz provides a simple educational summary that explains the correct answer. At the end, it shows your score and how you compare to the general population.

The quiz was officially introduced this week at the International Conference on Family Planning in Indonesia. It was developed as part of IRH’s Fertility Awareness for Community Transformation Project, which strives to increase fertility awareness and the use of family planning.

Victoria Jennings, PhD, director of IRH, explained in a recent Georgetown press release:

Accurate understanding and awareness about human fertility is surprisingly low around the world, regardless of age, sex or education level. If we could lift the taboos and improve fertility awareness, would people be informed and empowered to make better sexual and reproductive health decisions? At IRH, we believe the answer to this question is ‘yes.’

So why not take the challenge? How well do you know your bod?

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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Superheroes to the rescue: a creative approach to educating patients about asthma

January 21, 2016

Video by © 2015 Booster Shot Media

Asthma affects over 6 million children and leads to approximately 1.8 million visits to the emergency room annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In order to effectively manage asthma and help eliminate trips to the emergency room, physicians must identify the correct daily control and emergency rescue medications for their patients. However, educating young patients and their families is also critical.

“Patient education needs to be done at every visit,” Richard Moss, MD, professor of pediatrics, emeritus at Lucile Stanford Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, recently told me. “This includes a review of the asthma symptoms, proper use of medications, written action plan, test results, and educational handouts. The key is continuity of care and reiteration of important information at every visit.”

Last month, NBC News featured the work of an Illinois physician who has taken a non-traditional approach to patient education. Alex Thomas, MD, a cartoonist and pediatric allergist at the Center for Asthma and Allergies, created a multimedia asthma education program called Iggy and the Inhalers, which includes comic books, YouTube videos, posters, trading cards and stickers. I recently spoke with Thomas about this program and Booster Shot Comics, a partnership between Thomas and a health-communication specialist.

What motivated you to create the Iggy and the Inhalers comic book?

I started drawing Iggy characters when I was 11 years old. I grew up with asthma myself, so I drew as a way to understand my medications – turning them into superhero characters. My Mom is an allergist and she had a patient support group for kids with asthma. So I started drawing little comic strips about Iggy in the support group newsletter.

An interest in asthma and asthma education ultimately led me to go to medical school and become a pediatric allergist. When I was working on the pediatric wards, I noticed that a lot of kids were being admitted and readmitted to the hospital for asthma exacerbation due to confusion about their medications. So I eventually revisited my Iggy characters to create educational materials for physicians and patients, with the help of health communication specialist Gary Ashwal.

Can you describe the characters in Iggy and the Inhalers?

Iggy the Inhaler is the main character that teaches kids about the physiology of asthma. He has two teammates. One is Broncho the Bronchodilator, a rescue inhaler for quick relief of symptoms. The other partner is Coltron the Controller, a control inhaler that kids with persistent asthma need to take on a daily basis. There are also asthma trigger villains: Smokey Joe, Moldar, Pollenoid, Dust Mite, Roach and Hairy.

We wanted to create dynamic characters that embodied the mechanism of the medications that they represent, so kids can intuitively understand how the medications actually work. When kids look at a rescue inhaler, they imagine Broncho loosening the muscle bands around the airway because he’s a cowboy with a lasso. Whereas when they look at a control inhaler, they imagine Coltron decreasing inflammation inside the airways using his fire extinguisher arm.

How have families responded to Iggy and the Inhalers?

It has been very effective.

There was one family that really stuck with me. A mother came with a 3-year old son for an initial visit with a bag full of medications prescribed by an emergency room physician and subsequently doctors in urgent care. They were frazzled and overwhelmed, and the child was still coughing. I had them watch the basic Iggy video, while the Mom flipped through the comic book. When we talked afterwards, she said she finally understood the basic differences between the medications. She was very relieved and they went home with the Iggy stickers, comic book and trading cards.

The next week, the family returned for a follow-up. The son specifically asked to watch the Iggy video. He was reciting the words, wanting to play it again and again like an Elmo video. He was responding to the characters and the live actions in the video on how to use an inhaler. Since then, he’s done great. Every time I see him, he asks for more Iggy stickers.

What other projects is Booster Shot Comics working on?

We have plans for future issues of the Iggy comics and animated videos that will cover more specific topics on asthma and allergies, such as how to eliminate allergy triggers from the home. We are also working with physicians at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to turn discharge instructions for a concussion into a comic book, as well as a comic book to teach kids and their parents how to treat pain.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Reducing cesarean delivery rates, without jeopardizing safety

January 14, 2016

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Approximately one-third of all babies born in the United States are currently delivered by cesarean section, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although cesarean delivery can be life saving for both the mother and child, the rapid increase in the cesarean birth rate between 1996 and 2011 raised significant concern that cesarean delivery is being overused.

This concern has led to initiatives to lower the c-section rates, including a new plan funded by the Oakland-based California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) to lower California’s c-section rate for low-risk mothers to 23.9% in the next five years — in alignment with the Healthy People 2020’s national target.

A recent KQED Science article describes these efforts to reduce the state’s c-section rates. The story also explores the controversial issue that a healthy pregnant woman’s likelihood of having a cesarean birth varies depending on the hospital, based on a recent analysis of maternity care. For instance, the assessment report found that Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford has a c-section rate of 23.0 percent and the Coastal Communities Hospital in Santa Ana has a rate of 42.9 percent.

Deirdre Lyell, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, clarified the issue in a recent email:

Nationally and internationally, there is concern that cesarean rates as a whole are too high. CHCF and others have shown a wide rage in cesarean rates by hospital around the country, and even within hospitals among individual physicians. Hospitals with very high rates should examine the underlying reasons. However, the “ideal rate” depends on the characteristics of the patient population, and it would be inappropriate to apply one goal to all women. For example, a pregnant, non-obese 25-year old who has had a prior vaginal delivery has a better likelihood of delivering her baby vaginally than does a pregnant, obese 45-year old first time mom.

At Stanford, we follow the “Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery” guidelines outlined by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. We care for a higher-risk maternal and higher-risk fetal population, and share with our patients a common goal for delivery: a safe mom and a safe baby, while not performing cesareans unnecessarily. Avoidance of the first cesarean helps reduce the potential risks in the future.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Education reduces anxiety about mammography

January 8, 2016
Woman received mammogram (Rhoda Baer)

Woman receives mammogram (Rhoda Baer)

My close childhood friend Kelly died from breast cancer when she was only 32 years old. This inspired me to choose a research position at Berkeley Lab to help develop new breast-imaging scanners to improve early detection. Given my expertise in this field, my friends come to me with their confusion and ask, “At what age and how frequently should I get a mammogram?”

There has been a lot of debate surrounding mammography screening since 2009 when the United States Preventive Services Task Force revised their guidelines for average-risked women, limiting routine screening to biennial mammography for women 50 to 74 years of age.

The task force recommended increasing the screening age in part due to the harmful anxiety caused by false-positive results, which are more common in younger women. The American Cancer Society recently released a new set of guidelines that recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 45, but they also considered the pain, anxiety and other potential side effects of mammography.

A recent article published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology describes a successful intervention to reduce this anxiety. The authors provided interactive one-hour educational sessions on mammography, which were led by a trained breast radiologist.

Before the lecture, a questionnaire was administered to the participants to identify their anxiety and previous mammography experience — 117 responded. Those respondents who reported having anxiety about mammography screening indicated “unknown results” and “anticipation of pain” as the primary sources of their anxiety.

A follow-up questionnaire measured the effectiveness of the informational sessions. Virtually all participants were able to correctly answer key facts that were covered in the lecture, such as recognizing that it is important to have your prior mammogram available to the radiologist for comparison.

The journal article concludes:

Attendees of these sessions reported high levels of satisfaction in their participation, with a strongly favorable impact on increased knowledge and decreased anxiety (“harm”). Education can enable women to share in informed decision making regarding if, when, and how often to attend screening mammography. Attendees also reported encouragement to attend screening mammography.

The authors hope to encourage other radiologists to provide similar proactive, public outreach education.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Working towards a life-long, universal flu vaccine

January 6, 2016

To prepare for holiday socializing, I always roll up my sleeve to get an annual flu shot. I would much rather share food and gifts than a virus with my friends and family. And I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time sick.

However, seasonal flu vaccines are not always effective. There are thousands of strains of influenza virus and each can mutate over the course of the flu season. Seasonal vaccines only protect against a few of the most likely strains. As a result, flu-associated deaths range from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans per flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists have long-sought a life-long vaccine that would be effective against any variety of influenza, and they are now making significant progress towards this goal.

I recently spoke with Ian Wilson, PhD, a leading structural and computational biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, about his team’s universal flu vaccine research. He told me:

Our research has identified a good target for such a vaccine on a protein called hemagglutinin (HA) that is present on the surface of all influenza viruses. The HA protein has two major components: the head portion, which mutates and varies from strain to strain, and the stem, which is similar across most flu strains. We know that the HA stem is the virus’s most vulnerable spot, and provokes the greatest breadth of immune response. So a synthetic version of the stem was designed, called a mini-HA that mimicked the HA stem.

A key part of Wilson’s flu research took place at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lighsource at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where the scientists used a technique called X-ray crystallography to look at the atomic structure of the mini-HA at each stage of its development. I wrote a recent news article about the work.

Though this is important research, more work needs to be done. “We still need to perform human trials and also want to develop a vaccine that protects against all types of influenza that cause human pandemics,” said Wilson.

The is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Surgery to find your voice: A Q&A with expert Anna Messner

January 4, 2016
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Photo by Howard Lake

When we’re in a noisy restaurant, it’s really difficult to hear my young niece speak. She can only talk very quietly, because she has a paralyzed vocal cord.

Like many children born very premature, the nerve going to her vocal cord was likely damaged when she had heart surgery soon after she was born. Her inability to be heard frustrates her, especially now that she is in school. However, a rare surgery may bring her the hope of a near-normal voice.

Stanford surgeons recently began performing laryngeal reinnervation surgery, which essentially rewires the paralyzed vocal cord with a new nerve supply. I recently spoke with Anna Messner, MD, a professor of otolaryngology and pediatrics who sees patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, about laryngeal reinnervation surgery.

What standard surgical procedures are used to treat unilateral vocal cord paralysis?

In general, the surgical procedures bulk up the paralyzed vocal cord to move it towards the midline of the body, making it easier for the other vocal cord to compensate and close. There are two standard surgeries. We can do injection laryngoplasty, where we inject a substance into the paralyzed vocal cord to thicken it. Unfortunately, this procedure often needs to be repeated multiple times, if it works at all. We can also insert a medialization implant in teenagers and adults, but this doesn’t work for growing kids. If we put an implant into a two year old, it wouldn’t be an appropriate size when he is 10.

How does laryngeal reinnervation surgery work?

No matter what we do, we can’t make the vocal cord move. We can never make it perfect again. What we can do is hook up one of the other nerves in the neck to the recurrent laryngeal nerve that goes to the vocal cord. And that helps some new nerve fibers go to the vocal cord, making the vocal cord stronger and thicker. As a result, the voices on these kids improve significantly.

The surgery itself is fairly straightforward and only takes about an hour. The children typical go home the same day or just stay overnight, and they feel back to normal in a couple of days. But then we have to wait five to six months for the nerve fibers to grow before we can see real improvement in the voice. The only downside is that it takes a long time to see the effects of the surgery.

What inspired you to learn the laryngeal reinnervation procedure?

We have a large pediatric cardiac surgery program at Stanford, so we have quite a few patients with vocal cord paralysis. Most of our patients are born prematurely and need heart surgery, which can pull and damage the nerve that goes to the vocal cord on one side. After these surgeries, the damaged vocal cord starts working again in just over a third of the cases. But for the rest of the kids, the vocal cord remains paralyzed.

The standard surgeries just don’t work very well, so we’ve had a longstanding interest in finding alternatives. I saw Marshall Smith, MD, the medical director of the Voice Disorders Center at University of Utah, give a presentation on his clinical trials. So I observed him performing the reinnervation surgery about 1.5 years ago, and since then I’ve been performing the surgery. One of my colleagues, Doug Sidell, MD, also performs the surgery.

How does the voice improvement impact the patients?

The voice improvement makes a huge impact on the children, especially in school. For instance, when the children are trying to read a story or give a presentation in front of the classroom, now they can actually be heard. The results are very encouraging. The surgery has the potential for huge, life-long voice improvement.

This is a reposting of my Scope medical blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.


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