Friday, December 16, 2011

Medicare information -- plus movies

UnitedHealthcare and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture are collaborating to offer free information sessions aimed at helping African American beneficiaries of Medicare better understand their insurance options.

Three sessions are planned through February, featuring speakers from UnitedHealthcare and the Gantt center. The next is Saturday, Dec. 17, from 6 to 10 p.m., at McCrorey YMCA, 3801 Beatties Ford Road. An hourlong “Health Moment” will explain how Medicare works. That will be followed by a holiday dinner and dancing.

Other sessions are scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, and Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Gantt center, 551 S. Tryon St. Informational programs will be followed by the showing of classic movies featuring black actors.

Details: Bonita Buford, 704-737-2657.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is the placebo effect effective?

In my early 20s, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. But Western medical doctors had little to offer in the way of treatment, so I just lived with periodic bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Then, in the early 1990s, when I was researching a newspaper article on alternative medicine, I interviewed naturopaths and homeopaths who seemed to really care about and emphasize the importance of digestive health.

I began taking homeopathic remedies to restore balance to my "constitution." It was a slow process, but today I'm nearly symptom free.

When I mentioned this to a doctor friend one day, he suggested the treatment hadn't really worked and that my response was the result of a "placebo effect."

"So what?" I asked. If I felt better, it didn't really matter, did it?

Maybe there was some therapeutic benefit to having a practitioner who actually listened to me, spent time with me and believed that I could get well. And maybe medical doctors could learn from that.

Science journalist Michael Specter explores the placebo effect in a Dec. 12 article in The New Yorker. It focuses on the work of acupuncturist Ted Kaptchuk, who directs the new The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard Medical School.

You have to be a subscriber to read the magazine article online:
But you could find the print copy at the library or read more by doing a Google search for the institute and its director.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Day Advice

We're about to plunge into the best food fests of the year -- Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. As we do, N.C. health officials are offering a free resource to help keep weight gain at bay.

The six-week "Eat Smart, Move More…Maintain, don’t gain! Holiday Challenge" runs through Dec. 31. Participants will receive free weekly email newsletters with tips to manage holiday stress, ideas for fitting physical activity in during the busy season, and resources for cooking quick and easy meals when time is in short supply. You can also download a calorie counter, food log and activity log to help track your progress.

On-line sign-up is at Only an email address is needed to join. All participant information is kept confidential.

While we're at it, Rick Petitt of Carolina CPR Professionals in Concord offers these tips to manage stress:

Slow down: Take one minute to breathe deeply, take five and call a friend, take 15 and walk around the block.

Be aware of your actions: Alternate alcoholic beverages with water, eat a vegetable serving for each dessert you plan to consume, go to bed early the night before a celebration.

Avoid your stressors: Let someone else drive, shop online to dodge crowds, make lists so you feel in control.

“During the holidays, people overeat, drink more alcohol, and exercise less,” Petitt says. “When you add in financial pressure, travel, sleep disruptions, and family expectations you end up with much higher stress levels than usual. Since you can’t stop the holidays you can fight the stress.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Brain teasers

Charlotte's Pat Battaglia, a longtime rocket scientist turned puzzle creator, has a new book of word games that can exercise the brains of young and old alike.

"Smart Is as Smart Does: Brain Games to Reveal the Genius in You" is the fourth book in Battaglia's Smart Series. And he's eager to let people know about it in time for "National Game & Puzzle Week," Nov. 20 - 26.

Battaglia, who also has a syndicated newspaper puzzle column called "If You're So Smart, " often takes his puzzles to elementary schools, dressed as "Dr. Fun" in a white wig and lab coat with a pocket protector and a weird bow tie. He also visits nursing homes, sharing his "joy of words" with senior citizens.

"I've been lucky, " he said. "I've made my pastime my profession."

To order a book:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Celebrate cancer survivors every month

Punkin Brookshire of Charlotte (center in lower photo) is a brain cancer survivor who was shocked to learn she also carries a genetic disease called Lynch syndrome.

Keesha Carter of Wingate (center photo) used her experience with cervical cancer and her background in theater and the arts to educate and empower other women.

Jane Taillon of Davidson (top photo) survived rectal cancer, but refused to let chemotherapy and surgery interfere with her bowling tournaments.

They're among 13 cancer survivors featured in the fourth annual "Stories of Survivorship" calendar published by Presbyterian Cancer Center and Presbyterian Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center.

This year's subjects, also from Kannapolis, Concord, Huntersville, Mint Hill and Lake Wylie, were photographed by Charlotte photographer Kori Hoffman.
The calendars are free, but donations are accepted. Call 704-384-5223 or stop by Buddy Kemp at 242 Colonial Ave.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Babies By Design

Ronald M. Green, director of the Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics at Dartmouth College, will discuss "Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice" at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Alvarez College Union, Smith 900 Room, at Davidson College.

Author of a book by the same name as his talk, Green has been a member of Dartmouth’s Religion Department since 1969.

In 1996 and 1997, he was the founding director of the Office of Genome Ethics at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

The Davidson program is free. Details: or 704-894-2095.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Obamacare": Is it constitutional?

Debaters at the Charlotte School of Law last week didn't scream or shout like pundits on cable TV. But they did disagree over whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, approved by Congress last year, is constitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the question in the next few months.
Charlotte law students got a preview of the arguments. Elizabeth Wydra, general counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, took the affirmative, and Nelson Lund, professor of constitutional law at George Mason University, argued for the negative.

The structured debate gave each speaker 10 minutes, followed by limited time for rebuttal and questions. There were no hecklers in the audience, no U.S. flags hanging in the background, and no cheap shots. When Lund used the term "Obamacare," a pejorative used by opponents of the law, he took time to explain that even President Obama has recently "endorsed" the term.

Debate centered on the "individual mandate," the law's requirement that every citizen buy health insurance or pay a penalty, and whether it is allowed by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8), which gives Congress the right to make laws regulating commerce among the states.

Wydra said the mandate is constitutional because it "regulates the means by which people pay for health-care services" across the country. U.S. hospitals are required to treat people who show up at the ER even if they don't have insurance.
"They will run up a bill that they can't afford to pay," she said. "But someone will pay it" -- namely other patients with private insurance and other taxpayers.

Uninsured people may seek care in hospitals outside their home states, she said. The decision to "opt out" of buying insurance "profoundly affects the nation as a whole" and, thus, falls within the Commerce Clause, she said.

Lund countered that the Commerce Clause pertains to economic activity. "Failing to purchase health insurance is not an economic activity. It's not an activity at all."

"Never before has Congress tried to use this power to force Americans to buy things they don't want...It's a completely novel idea."

Instead of relying on the Commerce Clause, Lund said Congress could have used its taxing powers to raise money to pay for insurance coverage for all citizens. But President Obama had promised not to raise taxes on middle-class Americans. "This is a stealth tax operating in the guise of a regulation of commerce," Lund said. "Just because Congress can do something under one of its powers is not enough reason to expand another power."

Wydra responded that the mandate is allowed under the Commerce Clause because Congress is allowed to pass laws that are "necessary and proper" to carry out its enumerated powers. Without the mandate, and without large pools of healthy people who are less expensive to insure, insurance companies wouldn't be able to afford to extend coverage to all citizens, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. The mandate, she said, is part of a larger "scheme" to overhaul health care. "No one can possibly argue that health services reform is not an appropriate commercial regulation."

Lund countered that if Congress can require citizens to buy health insurance, it could also require them to buy broccoli. "It's not now a part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme, but it could easily become one."

No winner was declared. And neither speaker would predict what the Supreme Court will do. We'll all just have to wait.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

N.C. researcher helped with "Henrietta Lacks"

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is a book that tells the story of a young African American woman from Virginia whose aggressive cervical cancer in 1951 gave rise to unusual HeLa cells -- named from the first two letters of her first and last names.

Neither Lacks nor anyone in her family knew that doctors and researchers took her cells, replicated them, tested and sold them as they conducted research into the nature of cancer.

Author Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years tracking Lacks family members, who were frequently confused when they learned Henrietta's cells continued to live even after she died.

Skloot consulted many scientists as she prepared her manuscript. One of them was Dr. David Kroll, chairman of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at N.C. Central University, whose studies on the action of anti-cancer drugs have made extensive use of HeLa cells.

Kroll will talk about his experience from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at UNC Charlotte's Barnhardt Student Activity Center, Salons D and E.

Kroll's talk is titled: "A Black Woman, a White Boy, and a PhD: A Grateful Scientist's Reflections on the Henrietta Lacks Story."

UNCC promoters say he will share "in approachable language the major advances made with HeLa cells that continue to serve humanity today." He will tell his story of working with Skloot and the Lacks family while serving on the board of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, dedicated to providing medical and educational grants to descendants of those who unknowingly participated in and made contributions to biomedical research.

Seating is limited. Reservations are required:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Find out more about ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer survivors and their loved ones are invited to a free program to learn more about the disease and celebrate survivorship Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy.

Some of the country's top experts in the diagnosis and treatment of gynecological cancers will be in Charlotte Friday for a symposium at Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy.

Speakers will include gynecological oncology specialists from Carolinas Medical Center, Duke University, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Washington University and Ohio State University.

The target audience for this day-long event is doctors, nurses and other health-care providers. For details or to register:; 704-512-6596.

See also:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Caregiving is tough: Learn more about it

Taking care of a loved one who is ill or disabled can be a fulltime job. It often takes an emotional, financial and physical toll on the caregiver.

Queens University of Charlotte and The Ivey are hosting five workshops on Saturday mornings in October, to train caregivers on everything from how to handle daily activities and finances to end-of-life care.

The first workshop is Oct. 1 and is offered at two different times, from 9 to 11 a.m. or 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Queens/Presbyterian School of Nursing, 1901 E. Fifth St.

Later workshops will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Queens Sports Complex & Conference Center, 2229 Tyvola Road.

Register for the first workshop separately for $35. For later sessions, registration is $69 per workshop or $214 for the final four as a package. Call 704-337 2251.

For the last four workshops, The Ivey's adult day care center, 6030 Park South Dr., will open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. to allow workshop participants to drop off elderly family members, for $20 per person. Registration for adult day care is required by calling in advance, 704-909-2070. Breakfast and lunch are provided.

For details:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Walk for Rachael on Oct. 15

You may have seen the billboard on I-85 North in Charlotte, between Graham Street and Sugar Creek Road.

It announces the Energy for Life Walkathon on Oct. 15 at Freedom Park in Charlotte.

The billboard is owned by David and Bellita Jacobson, who donated the space to promote the walkathon in memory of their niece, Rachael Albertson. She's the daughter of Josh and Shari Albertson of Concord. (David Jacobson and Josh Albertson own Austin Canvas and Awning in Charlotte, and Bellita Jacobson is Josh Albertson's aunt.)

Rachael died Dec. 16, 2008, of mitochondrial disease when she was only 10. She had attended Carolina International School in Harrisburg and R. Brown McAllister Elementary in Concord.

Mitochondrial disease occurs when the mitochondria, the cells' power producers, become unable to convert food into energy. For many, it's an inherited condition. For some, it is triggered by damage to the mitochondria.

Rachael's illness developed after surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids. Her parents trace her mitochondrial damage to an anesthetic, called Propofol, that she received during the surgery when she was 6.

So little is known about mitochondrial disease that Rachael went undiagnosed for more than three years, Shari Albertson says. Sudden hearing loss was the first sign that something was wrong. But the hearing loss was misdiagnosed, and other organ failure went undetected until it was too late. Rachael's parents believe her death was hastened because she didn't receive appropriate care.

The Albertsons' started a foundation, "Rachael's Gift," to raise money that they hope to use to "educate the doctors and bring awareness to the medical community," Shari Albertson said.

The walkathon starts at 10:00 a.m. Oct. 15, with registration at 8:30 a.m. The Post-Walk Program is from 11 to 11:30.

The walk is organized by the Carolina Foothills Chapter of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. For details:, or

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hospital hell: No way to get well

I spent most of last weekend at the hospital with a friend.

Although there were bright spots – involving nurses, aides and doctors who went out of their way to be kind and caring – it was a completely exasperating experience.

My friend’s medical history is long and complicated. So orthopedic doctors in the emergency room Saturday agreed she should be evaluated closely before they recommended surgery to repair a hip fracture. She was admitted after six hours in the ER. I went home assuming she could get a little rest before Monday when the tests would start.

Then Sunday morning, my friend called to say she was being prepped for surgery that afternoon.

We were both astonished. I scrambled to get a shower and drive to the hospital. By the time I arrived, she'd already told the nurse she would not give consent for surgery until she saw her heart specialists.

On Monday, her cardiologists OK’d her for surgery. But then some new-to-the-scene orthopedic specialists decided surgery wasn’t the right course after all. They recommended weeks of physical therapy.

The outcome is OK. But the process was abusive.

The inconsistency of advice from rotating doctors drove us crazy. Over four days, she was repeatedly offered medicines that were not appropriate and failed to receive medicines she normally takes. After a day or so in the hospital, my friend began twitching so badly she couldn’t sleep. When she asked about this symptom, no one could explain it. She finally figured out on her own that it was because she hadn't been receiving an anti-anxiety drug she usually takes daily.

She was also alert enough to decline the drugs that were inappropriate. But I have to ask: Why do hospitals ask for a list of your medicines and then choose to ignore it? What happens to patients who aren’t so capable or don’t have advocates to help watch out for them?

I’m not naming the hospital here because it doesn’t matter. It could happen in any hospital – and does every day. And it’s no way to care for sick people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Exercise your brain

Here's a way to exercise your brain and maybe win some money.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has launched the first National Brain Game Challenge, a competition for adults with a $5,000 grand prize.

The games were created by Merl Reagle, whose Sunday crossword puzzle is syndicated in 50 newspapers across the country.

Registration costs $25 and provides online access to the puzzles on Sept. 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern time. The contest ends Sept. 27, and winners will be announced the next day.

Players must electronically submit solutions to each puzzle plus a final answer. The foundation will determine winners based on accuracy and speed. In addition to the $5,000 grand prize, there will be a $1,000 second prize, a $500 third prize and more than a dozen $100 prizes to other winners, including the 5,000th person with the correct response.

To register:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Get flu shots early

It's still so hot outside, who's thinking about flu season? Kerr Drug and CVS are.

Two months ahead of the usual schedule, the two national pharmacy chains have announced they are offering flu vaccine starting this month.

This year's vaccine will be similar to last year's, and like last year's, it will include protection against H1N1, the swine flu strain that started the recent pandemic. Now, swine flu is one of the annual circulating viruses included in the flu vaccine.

There's a new product this year. Fluzone High-Dose is a vaccine designed specifically for people 65 years and older. It's made with the same ingredients as the standard flu shot, but is designed to provide stronger protection from influenza for this age group, which has a greater risk of developing a severe illness from influenza. CVS will be offering Fluzone, but Kerr Drug will not.

Just like last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine.

No appointments are necessary, and vaccinations are available at CVS and Kerr Drug stores during regular hours. "It’s never been easier to get a flu shot and it offers the best protection against the flu,” said Kerr Drug CEO Anthony Civello.

The vaccine is $30 at Kerr Drug, which accepts most insurance plans. CVS charges $29.99, but also accepts most insurance plans; customers whose insurance does not pay for the vaccine will receive a $5 CVS/pharmacy gift card.

And by the way, health experts say the vaccine will last through the entire season even if you get it early. "If you get you flu shot now, you will be protected well through flu season which is generally late Jan through the end of March," said Dr. Stephen Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Think positively

When something went wrong, no matter how big or small, my dad would often conclude: "That's the trouble."

Today, my brothers, sister and I often laugh when we remember our Dad's worry-wart personality and his sometimes pessimistic view of life. Unfortunately, it rubbed off on me, and I've had to consciously work not to worry so much and to be more optimistic in the face of even minor challenges and change.

One thing that helped is cognitive behavioral therapy. It's the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive, affirming statements. It means choosing to focus on what you can change instead of things you can't control. It's about choosing to see what is "good" instead of focusing on the "bad" and avoiding assumptions about what will happen before it does.

As Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened."

Here's a link from the Mayo Clinic with more about cognitive behavioral therapy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stressed out? Slow down and breathe.

Even before the stock market plunge, I was feeling anxious about life. Things are changing in my workplace, as they may be in yours -- if you still have a job. This week, when I joined a few colleagues for our weekly yoga class, we needed relaxation more than ever.

Our yoga instructor, Nancy Nicholson, read a passage about the power of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts.

One of his most popular books is "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness." But Nancy read from another book, "Everyday Blessings," that he wrote with his wife, Myla.

Here's an excerpt: "Mindfulness means moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time, as best we can. In the process we become more in touch with our life as it is unfolding. Ordinarily, we live much of the time in an automatic pilot mode paying attention only selectively and haphazardly, taking many important things completely for granted or not noticing them at all, and judging everything we do experience by forming rapid and often unexamined opinions based on what we like or dislike, what we want or don't want...Mindfulness is a meditative discipline... It is a systematic and sustained observing of the whole field of our experience, or of some specific element of it."

Along similar lines, Dr. Andrew Weil, the renowned advocate of integrative medicine, has said that if he could give only one tip for better health, it would be to breathe properly. Here's a link to that discussion on his website.

Do you have other tips for staying calm in the face of uncertainty and change?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Optimistic about health care reform?

At a Chamber of Commerce forum last week on "Health Care: The Changing Landscape of Cost & Quality," representatives of insurance companies, hospital systems and large employers seemed pessimistic about the future.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will not control costs, they said, and will require that millions more people purchase health insurance (either on their own or with federal subsidies). That will result in a shortage of primary care doctors to handle the onslaught of newly insured patients.

"You can get really depressed talking about it," said Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield North Carolina.

One audience member asked whether, given these drawbacks, some speakers might wish the United States had followed the European example and chosen to "go in the direction of a single payer plan" or a public option.

Bob Ihrie, a senior vice president for employee rewards and services at Lowe's, said his company has stores in Canada, where the government is also trying to shift costs to the provinces, and "waiting lines (for care) are going up."

"I've gone back and forth on the issue," he said. "I'm deathly afraid that a single payer system would get us into one that is not very creative...You see various combinations (of health plans around the world) , and all of them have the same problem."

Tell me what you think.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Missing our parents

In recent years, when I've written about the deaths of my parents and my grief over losing them, I have heard from many readers who shared some of the same feelings.

Last month, I met one of them. Judi Wax (pictured above) sent me an e-mail after Mother's Day when I wrote about missing my mom's long wave goodbye as I drove away at the end of a visit back home in Indiana. Judi and I found we had a lot in common. She also grew up in the Midwest --she lived in Illinois before moving to Charlotte -- and we both were present at the deaths of our parents.

I agree with her that those experiences were among the most powerful in my life. Here's how Judi describes it: "It's awful to have a parent die. But to be able to have the time to really say everything you want to say, and for them to have the time to say everything they want to say. It's a gift."

Judi's story has been the subject of three articles in the Chicago Tribune -- two written by former columnist Bob Greene and a third written by Judi herself under her maiden name Silverman.

Here's a link to the first Bob Greene article in 1985. He doesn't name Judi, but the story is based on her letters and interviews.

Here's a link to the followup Greene wrote 17 years later.

And here's a link to the article Judi wrote about her father.

Here's the link to my Mother's Day story from May 2011.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Support breastfeeding now

Because breastfeeding is a key to improving infant mortality rates and child health, N.C. health officials have created a special designation to recognize hospitals and birthing centers that do a good job of supporting mothers who breastfeed their infants.

Don't they all do that, I asked. Apparently not.

The state's Nutrition Services website lists 10 steps each maternity center should follow to win the five-star "breastfeeding-friendly designation."

The steps include giving newborns no food or drink other than breastmilk (unless medically indicated) and allowing mothers and infants to remain together (rooming-in) all day long.

“We know that infants who are breastfed benefit in many ways – through improved immunity to disease, reduced likelihood of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and in lower rates of childhood obesity,” said State Health Director Dr. Jeff Engel. “Our goal is to create a climate where nursing mothers are supported in their choice to breastfeed their children.”

State policy requires all government agencies to provide space, privacy and time for nursing mothers to pump breast milk. For example, at the N.C. Division of Public Health’s main Raleigh campus, a room has been furnished specifically for nursing mother’ use.

For ideas on becoming a breastfeeding friendly workplace or applying for the breastfeeding-friendly designation, see

Monday, August 1, 2011

Honduras hospital transplanted from CMC-Lincoln

In 1986, Dr. Francis Robicsek led the team of surgeons who performed the first heart transplant in Charlotte.
This month, he’s celebrating a “hospital transplant.”

Through Robicsek’s widespread connections in Central America, equipment from the old Lincoln Medical Center in Lincolnton is now furnishing a new burn hospital for children in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Robicsek will be sitting with the president of Honduras at the dedication Aug. 15. He has nicknamed the new hospital “Lincoln Memorial Honduras.”
The Lincolnton hospital’s used equipment – beds and stretchers, operating room lamps and tables, scrub sinks (see above) – would be worth about $800,000 if purchased new.

In the United States it was worth nothing, Robicsek said. "New hospitals won’t take used equipment.” But in Honduras, he said, “It was worth it’s weight in gold.”

The idea for the donation took shape in 2009 after Carolinas HealthCare System announced plans to replace the Lincolnton hospital, now called Carolinas Medical Center-Lincoln, with a new $90 million building that opened in 2010.

When Robicsek learned the old equipment was going into storage, he offered a better idea.

For years, he has arranged donations of used equipment to hospitals in Central America through organizations supported by Carolinas HealthCare. In the last 20 months, about $5 million in used equipment has furnished cardiac catheterization laboratories and other hospital units in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Belize and Haiti.

Robicsek and Theresa Johnson, coordinator of the international outreach project, met with Pete Acker, chief executive officer at CMC-Lincoln. With Acker’s support, Johnson visited the old Lincolnton hospital before it was demolished and measured everything. The Hondurans built their new hospital based on her specifications, months before their donated equipment arrived. (See photo of delivery day below.)

“Rather than sitting in a warehouse, this equipment now has a second, extremely useful life,” Acker said. “To be able to serve children in such great need, it’s really an incredible story.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hospital costs

What could me more confusing than hospital bills?

It's nearly impossible to get an idea of what a procedure will cost ahead of time. Even afterwards, bills are difficult to decipher, and insurance companies never pay what the hospital initially charges.

The Observer is doing research on medical costs. If you have concerns about your hospital bill, please write back here, send an e-mail to, or call me at 704-358-5078.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

N.C. Medical Board discipline up in 2010

Every year, the N.C. Medical Board releases a report outlining its disciplinary actions for the past year.

In 2010, the board took "prejudicial" actions related to 226 doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. That was an increase over 218 individuals disciplined in 2009.

License suspensions were up to 59 in 2010, from 42 in 2009. Reprimands were up to 48 in 2010, from 38 in 2009. Public Letters of Concern, a fairly new tool for the board to use, remain the most prevalent type of public action. The board issued 77 letters in 2010, compared to 73 in 2009.

Here's the complete report:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Daughters Win With Moms

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a newly released national survey shows mothers would overwhelmingly choose to move in with their daughters over their sons if they can't live alone. And mothers say their daughters will take better care of them as they age.

The survey, which polled 335 Americans over age 55, was commissioned by Senior Helpers, a provider of in-home care and creator of the Stay At Home Score Quiz.

Take the 8-question survey at

The national survey shows:
70 percent of mothers with both a son(s) and a daughter(s) would choose to move in with their daughter over their son if they could not take care of themselves.

68 percent of mothers say as they age, daughters will take better care of them than their sons will.

65 percent of mothers say their daughters, more than their sons, would most likely want them to move in.

But it wasn't all bad news for men:

Nearly 80 percent of parents say their own children (both sons and daughters) will take care of them as well as they, themselves have taken care of their parents.

70 percent of mothers and fathers say their children (both sons and daughters) would pay out of their own pockets to care for them as they age.

94 percent of mothers and fathers say they would rather live in their own home as they age instead of moving in with any of their children or to a nursing home or assisted living facility.

Nearly 52 percent of fathers say they’d rather move in with their daughters while 48 percent say they’d rather move in with their sons.

57 percent of fathers said their daughters would want them to move in while 43 percent say their sons would want them to move in.

65 percent of fathers say their daughters will take better care of them while they age and 35 percent say sons will take better care of them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Officially, Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy is a "patient-centered" hospital.

After a three-year effort, the 95-year-old hospital in the Elizabeth neighborhood of Charlotte has become the first hospital in North Carolina to receive the designation as a Planetree hospital.

The Planetree model was created in 1978 by a San Francisco patient who had a traumatic hospital stay. Hospitals with the Planetree designation focus on ways to humanize and demystify the health-care experience by using integrative therapies and visual and performing arts to enhance the healing environment.

Last year, Carolinas HealthCare System completed a $96 million renovation at CMC-Mercy that included a new two-story lobby and the addition of an adjacent five-floor office building. The lobby features an 11-foot bronze fig tree. Original art adorns every public space, and a grand piano in the mezzanine is available to anyone who wishes to play.

As part of patient-centered care, visitors are allowed at any hour, even in intensive care units. Patients are offered massage, music therapy, aromatherapy and pet visitation. Employees invite patients’ families and caregivers to become “care partners” who assist with small personal tasks, such as bathing loved ones, or more significant ones, such as discussions with doctors and nurses about diagnoses and treatment options.

“We believe that dialogue and the exchange of information with the care team empowers patients,” said Dr. Dael Waxman, medical director of patient-centered programming at CMC-Mercy. “It allows patients to become active participants in making healthcare decisions.”


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Speed Date for a Doctor

In February, Presbyterian Healthcare hosted its first "Find Dr. Right" event to help match patients with gynecologists.

Now, they're back with pediatricians and family physicians in three more "Find Dr. Right" events in the Lake Norman, south Charlotte and Strawberry Hill areas. Parents and parents-to-be will get four minutes each with participating doctors.

Events are free and start at 6 p.m. Here are the dates and locations:
May 3, Red Rocks Café, Strawberry Hill, 4223 Providence Rd.
May 10, Macaroni Grill, Promenade, 10706 Providence Rd.
May 12, Red Rocks Café, Birkdale, 8712 Lindholm Dr., Huntersville

Registration is required: 704-384-2273.
For more information:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

DaVinci Robot for Bariatric Surgery

Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville announced this week that it's the first hospital in the region to offer weight loss surgery with the daVinci robotic surgical system. Presbyterian and other area hospitals are already using the robot for prostate cancer surgery and other operations. A report in the journal Medical Care recently concluded that hospitals with daVinci robots for prostate cancer perform more radical prostatectomies as a result while those without the robots did fewer surgeries to remove prostate glands. Read more at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview blog: The daVinci technology allows for minimally invasive surgery. Patients who qualify may experience less pain and scarring, reduced risk of surgical complications, and a shorter recovery time. But the lead author in that Medical Care report said: "Patients should be aware that if they seek care at a hospital with a new piece of surgical technology, they may be more likely to have surgery and should inquire about its risks as well as its benefits." Drs. Donald Balder and David Voellinger of Southeast Bariatrics are offering robot-assisted weight loss surgery at Presbyterian Huntersville. For more information, call 704-347-4144 or register online at

Monday, March 28, 2011

Kickstart A New Diet

Dr. Neal Barnard, a nutrition researcher at George Washington University School of Medicine, will talk about his book, "21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health," Apr. 25 at a free seminar at 7 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 4020 Sharon Road.

Barnard is challenging Charlotte residents to change their dietary ways and aims to help them do it. "We’ve found that the best way to lose weight is to jump into a completely healthy diet for three weeks," Dr. Barnard explains. "That means skipping meat and greasy foods, and focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans for three weeks. During this test drive, people start to slim down, and they also see their cholesterol and blood pressure levels plummet. If they have diabetes, it often improves dramatically. Migraines and other pains often vanish."

Barnard recommends foods that help tame the appetite and boost metabolism. His program does not require calorie counting or even exercise. He provides three weeks of recipes, nutrition information, and cooking tips.

Barnard is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the author of 14 previous books on diet and health. For more information, contact Jill Eckart at 202-527-7337 or

Friday, March 4, 2011

Health care is just a CLiC away

There’s a new place to go for health care in Charlotte.

It’s called CLiC, and it stands for “convenient, local, individualized care.”

CaroMont Health, the system that operates Gaston Memorial Hospital, opened its first CLiCÖ center recently in Charlotte, near Mountain Island Lake. The address is 3605 Mount Holly-Huntersville Road.

It’s like an urgent care center, but it also helps people stay well. After treating a patient’s immediate needs, doctors and nurses will connect them with resources that could help with stress management, fitness and nutrition.

It’s like a drug store, but in addition to over-the-counter medicines and supplements, it also offers private rooms where customers can watch videos on a variety of health topics.

CLiC employs a medical doctor trained in integrative medicine, which is the blending of Western medical care with alternative therapies, such as acupuncture.

When people come to CLiC with an acute health problem, they can plan on getting information that can help prevent future problems. Patients may get help with weight management, high blood pressure and sleep problems that were not the initial reasons for their visit.

“It’s a place where people can come over and over again,” said Mary Hassett, a strategic planning consultant who assisted CaroMont in planning for CLiC. “The coffee shop is right next door. The setting is a well-trafficked area. It’s very easy and appealing to come in.

Hassett modeled the CLiC center on other urgent care/wellness/retail programs developed for other clients, such as Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, Henry Ford Health System in Michigan and Intermountain Healthcare in Utah.

“The common thread is to begin integrating health and wellness into what has formerly been a sick-care environment,” she said.

Hours for the CLiC medical practice are 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week. No appointments are needed. Hours for the retail store are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Finding Doctor Right

You’ve heard of speed dating to find a mate.

Well, Presbyterian Healthcare is inviting you to speed date for a doctor.

The hospital system’s first “Find Dr. Right” session will be Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 6 p.m. at Providence Café, 110 Perrin Place.

Obstetrician-gynecologists will be available to meet with participants one-on-one for three minutes each. The event is free. Appetizers and drinks will be provided.

Other hospitals across the country have hosted similar events to give people the chance to meet potential physicians face-to-face. Participating doctors are Navin Bhojwani, Claire Bowles, Noelle Clarke and Gregory Reynolds of Bradford Clinic, Mark Bland, Thor Svendsen and Simon Ward of Rankin Women’s Center, Caudrean Avery, Chris Danner and Jennie Hauschka of Mintview OB/GYN, Gregory Parker of Midtown OB/GYN, Lisa Wilson of Providence OB/GYN.

For more information: Space is limited. Registration is required: 704-384-2273.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Let's talk about end-of-life care

There has been enough talk about death panels and too little talk about end-of-life care.

As I typed those words, a new e-mail popped across my computer from Art Caplan, a nationally known medical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania.

We had both read the new policy statement from the American Society of Clinical Oncology urging doctors to talk with patients about their end-of-life wishes.

Here's a link to Caplan's blog on MSNBC:

And here are some other links to get you started.

ASCO offers a free booklet, "Advanced Cancer Care Planning," to help initiate candid discussions between patients, their families and physicians about treatment options, including palliative care. You can download the booklet from the society's patient web site:

Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region also offers many helpful resources on its web site: Click on "Information for patients, families & the community" to read more about palliative care. Or try "Professional and Community Education" for information about advance care planning documents such as living wills and health care powers of attorney. At "About us," you can find answers to frequently asked questions (FAQS).

Carolinas Center for End of Life Care also offers plenty of help at

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stories of Survivorship Calendar

Joshua Stein has survived testicular cancer since 2008.

Carol Solomon has survived colon cancer since 2004.

Morris Nicholson has survived prostate cancer since 2002.

They are among the 12 cancer survivors pictured in the 2011 calendar published by Presbyterian Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center.

The idea for the calendar started several years ago with Tiffany Young, a clinical social worker at Buddy Kemp, where survivors gather regularly. Others at Presbyterian ran with her suggestion, and they now ask cancer center employees every year to nominate patients whose personal stories have touched them. The project has become extremely popular with hospital staff, who nominated about 80 survivors this year.

The result is a "Stories of Survivorship" calendar with striking photographs by Kori Hoffman - mostly black and white with touches of pink, orange, red, green and blue - of smiling survivors.

To obtain a free calendar, call Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center, 704-384-5223, or pick one up at 242 Colonial Ave., Charlotte. (

Donations are accepted to provide emergency assistance to cancer survivors through the Hand-in-Hand Fund.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Brain teasers: Use it or lose it

Charlotte's Pat Battaglia, a longtime rocket scientist turned puzzle creator, has a new book of mental games and puzzles designed to exercise the minds of young and old alike.

"Smart Is As Smart Does: Brain Games to Reveal the Genius in You" is Battaglia's fourth book in a series of "Smart" books. See

Here's an example: What unusual characteristic do the following words have in common?
Christmas, castle, listen, chestnut, whistle, often, mortgage.
Hint: To solve this puzzle think quietly.

Battaglia, 73, who moved to Charlotte 13 years ago from Niagara Falls, N.Y., also writes a syndicated newspaper column, "If You're So Smart," and is glad to have made his pastime his new profession.

In his new book, he lists the answers upside down on a different page. Here's the answer to the question above: All words have a silent "t."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Competing hospitals

At a health-care forum last week, representatives of Charlotte’s two large hospital systems and the state’s largest health insurance company talked about how they need to work together to improve care and reduce costs.

Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare have been zealous competitors for decades.

Carolinas HealthCare is the bigger, public system, with more hospitals and beds, a medical residency program to train doctors and a network of clinics that provide care for the indigent. Presbyterian, the private system, has grown too, through its merger with Novant Health of Winston-Salem, but suffers from an out-of-date reputation as a place that caters to wealthy, insured patients.

“We need to look at it being a new day and not being so, forgive me for saying this, competitive in Charlotte,” Mark Billings, president of Presbyterian Healthcare. “(We need to be) more collaborative. We see banks working together on things all the time.”

But despite the call for change, it didn’t take long for competition to creep into the discussion at Central Piedmont Community College’s Harris Conference Center.

When the moderator half-jokingly asked whether he should get bids before having a knee transplant, Russ Guerin, a executive vice president at Carolinas HealthCare, said: “You could, I suppose. But I would just go to our hip and knee center at Mercy Hospital.”

The audience erupted in laughter at the self-serving plug.

When Billings got the floor again, he couldn’t resist.

“Since we’ve already thrown it out there,” he said, “there’s only one orthopedic hospital in the area.”

He didn’t need to explain that he was talking about Presbyterian Orthopaedic Hospital.

“And by the way,” Billings said, as laughter continued, “it’s the top-rated orthopedic hospital in the country.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mobile mammography center takes the road

On Monday, Jan. 24, Charlotte Radiology will launch a new mobile mammography unit to provide early screening for breast cancer for women in Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union and York counties.

The mobile unit is 38 feet long, with a registration and waiting area, two private dressing rooms and a private exam room. Staffed by two certified mammography technologists, the unit offers digital mammography, which provides better quality exams, reduces radiation and shortens exam times.

Each exam will be interpreted by a board-certified physician who specializes in breast imaging. Most appointments take less than 30 minutes.

About 68 percent of women ages 40 and above have had a mammogram within the past two years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mecklenburg County reports more than 120 cases of breast cancer per 100,000 people, higher than the national average, according to the National Cancer Institute.

To schedule a mammogram, call 704-367-2232 or go to

To schedule the mobile breast center at your business, call Charlotte Radiology at 704-334-7811.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is Health Reform Legal?

Legal challenges to the 2010 health reform law are winding their way through the courts. And predictions are that the Supreme Court will have the final word on whether the federal government can require every citizen to buy health insurance.

Read more about the reasoning behind these challenges and decisions in The New Republic's first "Online Cover Story" by Jonathan Cohn, author of "Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis - and the People Who Pay the Price."

Here's a link to Cohn's article, called "The Worst Case: How health care reform really could get repealed—and why the repercussions would go well beyond health care."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

To repeal or not to repeal

Up to 4.1 million non-elderly N.C. residents with a pre-existing medical condition could be denied health-care coverage without the new health reform law, according to an analysis released today by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Across the country, up to 129 million Americans would be at risk.

Under the new law, which takes full effect in 2014, Americans with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, can get health insurance when they need it, and families don't have to worry about having insurance cancelled or capped when a family member gets sick or about going broke because of the medical costs of an accident or disease.

See the full report at:

In a new column, Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, discusses the upcoming vote by the House of Representatives on repeal of health reform and reviews polls about what Americans think. Here's a link if you want to read more:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

No improvement on medical mistakes

Hospitals are falling short on efforts to make medical care safer, according to a recent study that collected its data from 10 N.C. hospitals.

It was the first major study to analyze harm from medical care since a well-publicized 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine sparked a movement to reduce errors and make hospitals less hazardous.

The new study, published in November in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the most common problems - complications from procedures and drugs, and hospital-acquired infections - have not improved.

If you haven't read about the study, here's a link to the New York Times story:

And here's an interesting commentary:

If any of you have had experience with hospital-acquired infections, I'd like to hear from you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Health-care Forum Cancelled

Tomorrow evening's free health-care forum featuring State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, and Alison Rose Levy, a health reporter for the New York Times, has been cancelled because of the snow and ice.

Sponsored by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, the forum had been planned for Tuesday Jan. 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Booth Playhouse in Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

The program will not be rescheduled.

MURDOCK Study Reaches 5,000 Participants

In less than two years, the Murdock study at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis has enrolled 5,000 volunteers.

With blood samples and other information from these volunteers, researchers are building a database that they say will "rewrite the textbook of medicine" by helping to better understand common diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

The goal is to recruit about 50,000 volunteers from Kannapolis and Cabarrus County for the Duke University study, named for billionaire Dole Food owner David Murdock, who donated $35 million for this project.

Volunteers must live in Cabarrus County or Kannapolis and be at least 18 years old. Schedule an appointment at 704-250-5861 or

You'll be asked to make a 30-45 minute, one-time visit to one of 17 enrollment sites. Staffers will check vital signs and obtain blood and urine samples. Volunteers agree to be contacted every year for follow-up and may be asked to participate in additional research studies.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Are Seniors Selfish?

I'm weeks behind in reading The New Yorker, but I want to belatedly alert readers to the Nov. 22 article about "the revolt of the retired" that has led to so much talk about repealing the federal health reform law of 2010.

The article, by James Surowiecki, points out that "in every age group but one - seniors -a plurality of voters want to keep the bill intact."

The reason? Seniors believe health reform is coming at their expense. "Never mind that...the (new law) also has a host of provisions that benefit seniors - most notably the closing of the infamous drug benefit 'doughnut hole,' which had left people responsible for thousands of dollars in prescription drug costs."

The author adds, "There's a colossal irony here: the very people who currently enjoy the benefits of a subsidized, government-run insurance system are intent on keeping others from getting the same treatment."

Read for yourself at:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The ideal health-care system

If you had the power to design your own health-care system, what would it look like?

This is the question participants will be asked Tuesday, Jan. 11, at a free forum, "My Healthcare, My Way," featuring State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, and Alison Rose Levy, a health reporter for the New York Times.

The free program, sponsored by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University, is from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Booth Playhouse in Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 North Tryon Street.

Rucho will kick off the event by describing North Carolina's health-care challenges. Levy will share her thoughts on patient responsibility for health.

Then, the tables will be turned, and participants will be asked for their opinions about how to design the best health-care system.

Space is limited. Register at Under "News and Events," click on My Healthcare, My Way.