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Health Highlights: June 27, 2007

Psychiatrists Get More Drug Company Gifts: Report U.S. Teen Birth Rates Vary By State Iowa Has Shortest Emergency Room Wait AMA Exploring 'Health Courts' to Judge Malpractice Cases China Closes 180 Food Plants Texas A&M; Allegedly Hid Bioweapons Accident

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

Psychiatrists Get More Drug Company Gifts: Report

Drug makers give more money for lectures and other services to psychiatrists than physicians in any other specialty, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

As an example, the newspaper cited this week's announcement by Vermont officials that drug company payments to psychiatrists more than doubled last year to an average of $45,692 from $20,835 in 2005. A similar trend in Minnesota was reported earlier by the newspaper.

Drug firms spent $2.25 million on marketing payments, fees, and travel expenses to Vermont doctors, medical institutions, and universities last year, an increase of 2.3 percent over 2005, the newspaper said.

Those numbers, however, do not include free drug samples given to physicians, or the salaries of marketing sales representatives, the Times said.

The Vermont analysis found that endocrinologists received the second-largest amount from drug makers, an average of $33,730.

Revelations like these have fueled calls from federal and state legislators to track and limit drug maker payments to doctors, the Times said. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging was to begin hearings Wednesday on federal legislation to do just that. And more than a dozen states are considering similar bills, the newspaper said.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen issued a statement saying it was prepared to testify before the federal committee on the need for a strong national disclosure law.

"While physicians may argue that these interactions do not affect them, much research suggests otherwise. Pharmaceutical companies would not pay such exorbitant sums (to physicians) if they did not think they could influence prescribing practices," Public Citizen said.


U.S. Teen Birth Rates Vary By State

Texas has the highest teen birth rate in the United States (63 births for every 1,000 females ages 15-19), while New Hampshire has the lowest rate (18 births for every 1,000 female teens), according to a new report from the nonpartisan research group Child Trends.

The group's annual analysis of teens who give birth found that teen birth rates were lowest in the Northeast, and highest in the South and Southwest.

After Texas, states with the highest rates were Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Arizona. After New Hampshire, states with the lowest rates were Vermont and Massachusetts, a Child Trends statement said.

Overall, the report found, the national teen birth rate in 2005 fell to an historic low at 40.4 births for every 1,000 female teens. That represented a 35 percent decline from the recent high in 1991 of 61.8.


Iowa Has Shortest Emergency Room Wait

If you need emergency room attention and want to be seen faster than in any other U.S. state, be sure to visit a hospital in Iowa.

The average wait time there is two hours, 18 minutes, well under the national average of three hours, 42 minutes, according to a new study from an Indiana firm that measures patient satisfaction.

Nebraska ranked second-fastest last year at two hours, 26 minutes, followed by South Dakota (2:28), Vermont (2:32), and Wisconsin (2:34), according to the analysis by Press Ganey Associates Inc.

The average emergency room wait time was longest in Arizona (4:57), Maryland (4:07), Utah (4:04), New York (3:58), and Florida (3:57), the Associated Press reported.


AMA Exploring 'Health Courts' to Judge Malpractice Cases

The American Medical Association says it has adopted principles to guide the establishment of so-called "health courts" to judge medical malpractice cases.

The courts, comprised of judges trained in medical standards, would be designed to "render more accurate decisions on whether or not medical malpractice has actually occurred," the AMA said in a statement.

The system would be patterned after a California law adopted in 1975 that included a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages.

"California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) has kept California's medical liability premiums in check, while they have increased sharply in other parts of the country without reforms," the AMA statement said. "Nearly 30 states have enacted caps with varying limits and exceptions, but such reforms remain elusive in other states and at the federal level."

The idea of health courts is "one of the promising alternatives that deserve further study as we work to fix the broken medical liability system," the statement said.


China Closes 180 Food Plants

Chinese regulators have closed 180 food plants after uncovering more than 23,000 food safety violations, The New York Times reported.

Following a scandal involving contaminated vegetable protein that triggered one of the largest pet food recalls in U.S. history, China said its crackdown on plants that produce food for human consumption began in December. Regulators discovered that some food makers were using "industrial chemicals, dyes, and other illegal ingredients in making a range of food products," the newspaper said.

Despite the crackdown, China has denied that its food exports are dangerous.

Announcement of the crackdown appeared on the Web site of China's leading quality watchdog. The action involving some 33,000 law enforcement officers uncovered violations including "illegal food making dens, counterfeit bottled water, fake soy sauce, banned food additives, and illegal meat processing plants," according to the Times.

Experts told the newspaper that the Chinese food production system is beset with problems, including unenforced regulations, corruption, and bribery.


Texas A&M Allegedly Hid Bioweapons Accident

Three researchers at Texas A&M University accidentally became infected last year with a highly contagious biological weapons agent, and the school then tried to cover up the accident, a state watchdog group alleges.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the accident was confirmed in April 2006, but the school allegedly didn't report the incident to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until recently.

The allegations were made by the Sunshine Project, a bioweapons watchdog group based in Austin, the newspaper said.

The agent involved is called Coxiella burnetti, also called "Q Fever," the Sunshine Project alleged. The group's director said the agent is very contagious, although only about 1 percent or 2 percent of infected people die, the newspaper reported. The Texas A&M researchers did not become ill, school documents suggested.

Still, the alleged withholding of the accident was a violation of federal law, and the school should be sanctioned under the federal Bioterrorism Act, Sunshine Project director Edward Hammond told the newspaper.

The group said it was unclear how the researchers became infected. The school issued a statement saying it was awaiting a response from the CDC, and would have no further comment.

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