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Health Highlights: Dec. 4, 2007

Fewer Drugs Covered by Medicare Part D in 2008 Report Offers Drug Information for Patients Bird Flu Pandemic Could Cost $2 Trillion Many Doctors Don't Report Colleagues, U.S. Study Finds FDA Questions Effectiveness of Cold Medication Ingredient High School Students Cite Various Reasons for Drinking

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Fewer Drugs Covered by Medicare Part D in 2008

Fewer drugs will be covered under Medicare D insurance plans in 2008 because of changes made by the U.S. government and insurers, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Avalere Health.

On average, there will be a 26 percent reduction from this year to next in the number of drugs offered by the 10 insurers with the most Medicare enrollees, USA Today reported.

For example, two of the largest insurers -- UnitedHealth and Humana -- cut the number of drugs they cover from about 3,750 to about 2,620.

The main reason for the reduction in the number of drugs being covered are changes made by Medicare, which shortened the list of drugs it will pay for, USA Today reported. Medicare officials and insurers claim that most beneficiaries will be unaffected by the changes.


Report Offers Drug Information for Patients

Patients aren't always getting the best information about prescription drugs from their doctors, says a report in the January issue of Consumer Reports. It noted that nearly half of U.S. adults take at least one prescription drug and 18 percent take three or more prescription drugs.

To help patients be better informed, the public education project Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs evaluated drugs for 35 common conditions including Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insomnia, menopause, migraine and overactive bladder.

The authors of the report said patients need to be aware of a number of things:

  • In many cases, older drugs are as good or even better than newer drugs.
  • Drugs within the same class aren't always that different.
  • Some drugs are less effective than patients might be persuaded to think by advertising campaigns.
  • Not enough research goes into adverse effects caused by drugs. Most research focuses on a drug's benefits. Consumers should use caution when prescribed any new drugs.


Bird Flu Pandemic Could Cost $2 Trillion

A worldwide bird flu pandemic could have an economic impact of as much as two trillion dollars, a top World Bank official said Tuesday at an international conference on avian flu.

"The global economic cost could be between 1.5 trillion to 2 trillion dollars," said Peter Harrold, acting vice president of the World Bank, Agence France-Presse reported.

To date, international donors have pledged $2.3 billion to help countries counter the threat of a bird flu pandemic, and more than $1 billion has been given to groups and organizations involved in the fight against bird flu, Harrold told delegates at the meeting in New Delhi, India.

The conference, which ends Thursday, includes more than 600 representatives from 105 countries who are discussing preparedness and challenges associated with combating bird flu, AFP reported.

A joint United Nations/World Bank report released last week said the risk of a pandemic is still as great now as it was two years ago, even though many countries have improved their ability to respond to bird flu.


Many U.S. Doctors Don't Report Colleagues: Study

While 96 percent of American doctors believe they should report incompetent or impaired colleagues, only 55 percent of those with direct personal knowledge of such doctors always did so in the previous three years, according to a survey of 1,662 doctors conducted between November 2003 and June 2004.

The survey also found that 93 percent of respondents said doctors should always alert authorities when they see other doctors make serious medical errors, but only 54 percent said they always did so in the previous three years, USA Today reported.

The findings appear in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The survey of cardiologists, family physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, internists and pediatricians found that cardiologists were least likely to say they always reported a serious medical error. Cardiologists and family doctors were least likely to report an impaired or incompetent colleague, USA Today reported.

"The intent of the paper was not to criticize but to highlight the areas for improvement," said senior author David Blumenthal, a Harvard internist who directs Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute for Health Policy.


FDA Questions Effectiveness of Cold Medication Ingredient

There's limited evidence that new formulations of over-the-counter cold medications with an ingredient called phenylephrine actually relieve nasal congestion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.

Phenylephrine has recently been added to many cold medicines, but the FDA said 14 available studies of the ingredient are small, poorly-designed and decades-old, the Associated Press reported. The agency is reviewing data ahead of a meeting later this month that will look at the use of phenylephrine in nasal decongestants.

"The studies are small and lacking in many details necessary to provided a convincing demonstration of effectiveness," the FDA said.

Many drug makers switched to phenylephrine after enactment in 2006 of a U.S. law that required cold products with pseudoephedrine to be kept locked behind the counter and sold on request at pharmacies. The move was meant to curb illegal processing of pseudoephedrine into methamphetamine, the AP reported.


High School Students Cite Various Reasons for Drinking

American high school seniors who say they have multiple reasons to drink have the heaviest and most problematic drinking behaviors, according to a study in the December issue of the journal Prevention Science.

Researchers used data gathered from 1,877 students in the graduating class of 2004 and identified major motivators for drinking, including experimentation, thrill-seeking, and relaxation.

Some high school seniors share all those reasons for drinking, but also drink to get away from problems and to deal with anger or frustration issues.

"Our study found that ... students who had multiple reasons to drink, including reasons related to coping, were also more likely to begin drinking at an earlier age, more likely to be drunk in the past year and more likely to drink before 4 p.m. compared to students who drank to experiment with alcohol, to experience the thrill of drinking or just to relax," lead author Donna Coffman, of Pennsylvania State University, said in a prepared statement.

"Boys were more likely to belong to the higher-risk group of thrill seekers, while girls were more likely to belong to the lowest level of risky drinking, the experimenters," Coffman said. "Both boys and girls who drank just to experiment with alcohol were also more likely to initiate drinking at a later age, compared to those who drank for other reasons."

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