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Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2002

Push Patients to Butt Out or Risk Malpractice, NYC Health Department Warns Doctors Bush to Get Smallpox Vaccination Along With the Troops Drug Shortages Plague U.S. Hospitals Blood Plasma Products Withdrawn Over West Nile Concerns Soon, You'll Be Able to Rate Hospital Performance 'Popcorn' Chicken Products May Harbor Plastic

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

Push Patients to Butt Out or Risk Malpractice, NYC Health Department Warns Doctors

New York City doctors may be charged with malpractice if they don't push patients to butt out, according to the NYC Health Department's quarterly newsletter.

Physicians say they are stunned by the department's warning and have never heard of a lawsuit being filed against a doctor for not coming down hard on patients who smoke, the New York Post reports.

The newsletter states that: "Because physician intervention can be so effective, failure to provide optimal counseling and treatment is failure to meet the standard of care and could be considered malpractice!"

Scott Einiger, legal counsel for the New York County Medical Society, said while doctors are obliged to help patients with addictions, the suggestion that they be sued unless they provide treatment plans for quitting smoking, sets "an impossible standard."

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Bush to Get Smallpox Vaccination Along With the Troops

President Bush announced today that he is ordering 500,000 members of the U.S. military and others stationed in high-risk locations to be inoculated against smallpox and said he too will receive the vaccine.

"Our government has no information that a smallpox attack is imminent," Bush said, "yet it is prudent to prepare for the possibility."

Despite the risk of serious side effects, the president said he will get the vaccine because he said he cannot ask the military to take this step unless he is willing to follow suit.

But Bush urged the general public not to get vaccinated, adding that neither his family nor his staff will receive the vaccine. He said he'd decided against initiating a broader vaccination program for all Americans, CNN reports.

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Drug Shortages Plague U.S. Hospitals

U.S. hospitals are facing medication shortages, particularly of injected drugs, primarily because fewer drug companies are willing to manufacture the drugs and vaccines that, while indispensable, yield low profits, experts say.

In some cases, sole manufacturers of some drugs decide to stop production, which increases the demand. Other times, aging manufacturing plants no longer pass sterility tests and close down temporarily, the Associated Press reports.

Hospital pharmacists say shortages rarely harm patients. But, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, last year three patients in the San Francisco-area died of bacterial meningitis from a contaminated steroid drug. Their doctor, unable to get the injectable solution, had it compounded at a local pharmacy.

George Hartpence, director of pharmacy services at the New Jersey Hospital Association, said in the 80's and 90's it was considered a problem if one or two drugs were on backorder. Nowadays, "at any given time, it seems there are about four dozen drug items that are near impossible to get," he said.

Dr. Mark Goldberger, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's drug shortage coordinator, predicts the situation won't improve any time soon. He said the agency is trying to alleviate the problem by investigating alternate sources, letting troubled plants stay open under closer supervision, and permitting the importation of drugs from other countries.

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Blood Plasma Products Withdrawn Over West Nile Concerns

Some 30,000 pints of blood plasma frozen during the summer's West Nile epidemic are being destroyed to guard against the unlikely event of West Nile infection, U.S. blood suppliers say. The announcement, made by the American Association of Blood Banks, the American Red Cross, and America's Blood Centers, coincided with the end of the West Nile epidemic in the warmer southern tier of the United States.

The amount being destroyed makes up about 15 percent of the Red Cross's frozen plasma supply and could not be taken out of circulation earlier since it would have led to serious shortages, experts told the Associated Press.

As reported by HealthDay yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration first announced the withdrawal of unspecified blood products to guard against the possibility of West Nile transmission. In a news release posted on its Web site, the FDA called the voluntary withdrawal the appropriate "rational response" to the risk of infection, noting that it was important "to ensure that an adequate supply of blood products is available."

In its announcement, the agency said the risk of West Nile transmission through tainted blood is still "thought to be low." Of more than 3,800 West Nile cases this year, 13 were believed to be caused by blood transfusion, the AP reports.

Most blood products are used fairly quickly. But plasma -- the liquid part of blood -- is routinely frozen and can be used up to a year later, the AP says.

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Soon, You'll Be Able to Rate Hospital Performance

Starting next summer, U.S. consumers will be able to rate their hospital stays so that incoming patients can compare institutions directly through a national online database, the Washington Post reports.

The consumer report cards initially will rate 10 measures of a hospital's treatment of three serious conditions -- acute heart attack, congestive heart failure and pneumonia. More diseases and conditions will be added over subsequent years, the newspaper reports.

Though the initiative will be overseen by the federal government, participation will be voluntary. But there is likely to be great pressure put on every U.S. hospital to participate. And the rating system is likely to prompt participating hospitals to go to great lengths to improve the quality of patient care, industry experts tell the Post.

The data will be posted on a Web site administered by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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'Popcorn' Chicken Products May Harbor Plastic

ConAgra Foods is voluntarily recalling 36,000 pounds of cooked, frozen chicken products that may be contaminated with plastic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service says.

The "Easy Entree" popcorn-style chicken made with white meat and oven crisp breading was packaged in 2-pound bags and bears the code "2241 P184."

The product was produced Aug. 29 and distributed to retail stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

ConAgra says the recall was based on results of a company investigation. Consumers with questions should contact Elaine Born of ConAgra Consumer Affairs at 1-800-321-1470.

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