Health Buzz: U.N. Warns of Bird Flu Resurgence

The promise and pitfall of medical apps for doctors; the era of electronic medical records.

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United Nations Warns of Bird Flu Resurgence

Bird flu is making a comeback, the United Nations warned Monday. Though the deadly virus had been in decline since appearing in 2003, wild bird migrations have brought it back to previously virus-free countries, and a mutant strain has already killed people in Asia. Those most likely to be affected? Residents of Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Particularly worrisome is a new vaccine-resistant strain that's been detected in China and Vietnam. So far, no cases have been reported in the United States, the New York Times reports. Bird flu symptoms include fever, cough, muscle aches, sore throat, and eye infections; the virus can cause pneumonia, severe respiratory disease, and death. Typically, it spreads from infected birds to people, though human-to-human transmission is rare. People are most likely to get the virus if they have extensive contact with infected birds, often by working in poultry production. The U.N. is calling for countries to increase their surveillance of the virus and to take preventive steps.

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  • The Promise and Pitfalls of Medical Apps for Doctors

    Today, smartphone apps allow health professionals at all levels to access the most up-to-date medical resources such as drug references, disease-risk calculators, and clinical guidelines—anytime, anywhere. Apps have several advantages over traditional medical texts, family physician Kenny Lin writes for U.S. News.

    First, the information is always current, whereas many textbooks are already dated by the time they hit shelves. And unlike textbook chapters, many medical apps have interactive features that help doctors choose appropriate screening tests for patients, recognize when immunizations are due, or calculate a patient's risk of developing heart problems. Lastly, apps can enable remote monitoring of high-risk patients and reduce the need for office visits. In a small study published in PLoS ONE, for example, researchers found that patients hospitalized for heart vessel blockages were able to complete "supervised" rehabilitation exercise sessions in their homes with a portable heart monitor and GPS receiver that transmitted real-time data to doctors via smartphone.

    But smartphone apps also have downsides—despite their enormous potential to improve the quality and convenience of healthcare. While textbooks undergo rigorous review by experts, apps vary in quality and don't have to be vetted for accuracy or safety. [Read more: The Promise and Pitfalls of Medical Apps for Doctors.]

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    • The Era of Electronic Medical Records

      Twenty years ago the influential Institute of Medicine began prodding the medical community to embrace electronic medical records. EMRs would make healthcare better, safer, and more efficient, argued the IOM, if every person's complete medical history was stored on computers linked up across the country. Clinicians anywhere could view a patient's every blood test, hospital stay, and X-ray; smart software would guide diagnoses. In hospitals, prescribed drugs and doses would be computer-vetted against each patient to forestall life-threatening medication errors. The medical community's general reaction: great idea, but difficult and expensive. As the years passed, hospitals did gradually adopt "computerized physician order entry" for prescriptions, but otherwise marriages between computers and healthcare largely took place in billing departments and other back offices.

      That is now changing—quickly. Hospitals have come to appreciate the value of collecting and analyzing data that help them understand where and how often things go wrong, sometimes dangerously but more often wastefully. And the federal government, aided by provisions in the health reform law, is waving a financial stick in one hand and dangling a carrot in the other to punish or reward doctors and hospitals that variously resist or embrace health information technology. The Department of Health and Human Services is offering financial incentives to hospitals and doctors' practices that can achieve what it calls "meaningful use" of electronic records by certain dates. Providers who fall behind in achieving meaningful use will eventually receive lower reimbursement rates for treating Medicare patients. [Read more: The Era of Electronic Medical Records.]