Harvard Health Blog

Join the discussion with experts from Harvard Health Publications and others like you on a variety of health topics, medical news and views.

Everywhere, hospitals are merging — but why should you care?

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Hospitals across America are merging. In 2014 alone, there were 95 mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures among U.S. hospitals, down only slightly from 98 in 2013. What is fueling this trend toward hospital consolidation — and why should you, as a consumer of health care, be concerned about it? Hospital administrators who create the mergers believe that hospital consolidation improves efficiency, access to care, and quality of care, and may lower costs. In contrast to hospital administrators, many health economists are wary about the growing number of these mergers. When individual hospitals merge into larger systems, they gain a larger share of the consumer health market. That puts them in a position to ask health insurance companies to pay more for medical care and procedures. These higher prices are not borne by the insurers, but by consumers in the form of greater premiums. Thus, some economists argue, mergers drive up health care costs and place added financial pressure on consumers.

Precision medicine is coming, but not anytime soon

Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

President Obama’s announcement of a Precision Medicine Initiative was one of the few items in this year’s State of the Union address to garner bipartisan support. And for good reason. Precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, offers the promise of health care based on your unique DNA profile and the profiles of a million other individuals. Getting to precision care will require new diagnostic tests. It will also need a new regulatory framework to make sure that technologies aren’t launched before they’ve been proven to be safe and effective, according to a Perspective article in The New England Journal of Medicine. It may take a few years to design this new vetting system and put it in place. In other words, precision medicine is on the horizon, but it isn’t around the corner.

Editorial calls for more research on link between football and brain damage

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Is brain damage an inevitable consequence of American football, an avoidable risk of it, or neither? An editorial published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ poses those provocative questions. Chad Asplund, director of sports medicine at Georgia Regents University, and Thomas Best, professor and chair of sports medicine at Ohio State University, offer an overview of the unresolved connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of gradually worsening brain damage caused by repeated mild brain injuries or concussions. The big question is whether playing football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy or whether some people who play football already at higher risk for developing it. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University hopes to provide a solid answer to that and other health issues that affect professional football players.

Early scans for back pain add cost but offer little benefit for seniors

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Older adults with new back pain usually end up getting a CT scan or MRI. That’s often a waste of time and money and has little or no effect on the outcome, according to a new study from the University of Washington. The results of the study contradict current guidelines from the American College of Radiology. The guidelines say that it’s “appropriate” for doctors to order early MRIs for people ages 70 and older with new-onset back pain, and many doctors do just that. The study, which followed more than 5,200 men and women over the age of 65 who saw a primary care physician for a new bout of back pain, found that people who got early back scans did no better than those who didn’t have scans. The scans added about $1,400 per person to the overall cost of back pain care — with no measurable benefit.

Are you 65 or older? Get two vaccinations against pneumonia

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

If you or a loved one is age 65 or older, getting vaccinated against pneumonia is a good idea — so good that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that everyone in this age group get vaccinated against pneumonia twice. For the past 30 years or so, the CDC has recommended that everyone ages 65 and older get a single-dose pneumonia vaccine called pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine 23 (PPSV23). This vaccine is also recommended for those between the ages of two and 64 who are at high risk of getting pneumonia. Findings from a large clinical trial called CAPiTA, published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that a second vaccine, called pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 13 (PCV13), provides further protection against pneumonia and related infections. When it comes to preventing pneumonia, the bottom line for older individuals is clear: Get vaccinated twice.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, lowers stroke risk in people with high blood pressure

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

If you’re among the one in three American adults with high blood pressure, be sure you’re getting plenty of the B vitamin known as folate. Doing so may lower your odds of having a stroke, an often disabling or deadly event linked to high blood pressure. That’s the conclusion of a large trial conducted in China, where many people don’t get enough folate. Most Americans get plenty of folate or its synthetic version, folic acid. That’s largely because grain folic acid is added to most grain products, including wheat flour, cornmeal, pasta, and rice. It’s a good idea for everyone to do a diet check to make sure it delivers enough folate. Good sources include green leafy vegetables, beans, and citrus fruits.

PCSK9 inhibitors: a major advance in cholesterol-lowering drug therapy

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Every so often, a medical advance comes along that rewrites the script for treating a disease or condition. After today’s announcement of impressive results of a new type of cholesterol-lowering drug, that scenario just might happen in the next few years. The results of three clinical trials presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that a class of new drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors can dramatically reduce the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream and prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems related to cholesterol-clogged arteries. The drawbacks are that PCSK9 inhibitors must be given by injection every 2 to 4 weeks, may cause mental confusion or trouble paying attention, and, if approved, will likely be expensive.

Edible marijuana — a half-baked idea?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Marijuana-laced brownies have long been a way to get high. Now a new generation of “food companies” is taking the concept of edible marijuana in a somewhat scary new direction: marijuana-laced foods that mimic popular candies. These sweets could pose a danger to children, warns a Perspective article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. From a marketing perspective, it’s a cute concept to sell Buddahfingers that look like Butterfingers, Rasta Reese’s that mimic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or Pot Tarts that resemble Pop-Tarts. But the availability of edible marijuana products has led to an increase in emergency visits to hospitals because of kids accidentally eating edible marijuana products and in marijuana-related calls to poison and drug hotlines.

Vegetarian diet linked to lower colon cancer risk

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Looking for ways to ward off colorectal cancer? According to a new study, a pescovegetarian diet — that’s a vegetarian diet that includes fish — was linked to a 43% reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, adds more support to the notion that something in red meat, or the way it is cooked, encourages the growth of colorectal cancer. It’s also possible that eating more plant foods provides extra beneficial nutrients such as folate, calcium, and fiber that may protect against colorectal cancer. Fish contain healthful omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Another good strategy for preventing harm from colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States? Have colonoscopies as needed.

Peanuts linked to same heart, longevity benefits as more pricey nuts

Nuts have been gaining traction as an all-natural health food. Tree nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts are especially prized for their rich cargo of vitamins, minerals, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The downside is that tree nuts tend to be pricey. But a study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine puts the humble peanut squarely in the same nutritional league as its upscale cousins. This work makes the health benefits of nuts more accessible to lower-income shoppers. An international team of researchers found that in more than 200,000 people from Savannah to Shanghai, those who regularly ate peanuts and other nuts were substantially less likely to have died of any cause — particularly heart disease — over the study period than those who rarely ate nuts. A key take-home message from this study is that eating peanuts appears to be just as potent for preventing heart disease as eating other nuts.