laurie-breen

Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.

Tracking the Flu, One Thermometer At A Time

Since 2014 Kinsa has been promoting and developing their smart thermometers – a thermometer that links to your smartphone, allowing patients, parents or other healthcare professionals to record and track their temperature data over time. With this year’s record-breaking flu season, Kinsa’s smart thermometer has achieved critical mass, with Kinsa reporting up to 25,000 readings per day. With all this real-time data, Kinsa is claiming to be able to track flu season faster and more accurately than public health authorities, such as the CDC. Once your child has registered a temperature, Kinsa’s smartphone app gives helpful tips about how to treat and manage fever. But who else now knows that your child is sick? A happy side effect of having 500,000 smart thermometers in American households is a glut of data about who has a fever and where. Kinsa has a very savvy marketing team, and the company is monetizing not only their devices, but also their data. For example, Kinsa has created a school program, called “FLUency,” to market the devices to schools and parents. The FLUency program includes a school-specific app for parents to share symptoms, such as if their children are exhibiting coughing, sore throat, earache, etc. Kinsa has also developed “Kinsa Insights,” a reportal that sells access to Kinsa’s anonymized data, with the promise that Insights clients are getting the data directly from sick households, before...

The Best 2018 Diets (And The Worst 2017 Diets)

Every year we start with the best intentions: “This is the year I’m going to exercise more, eat better and lose weight.” But now that we’ve rung in another new year, you might be wondering why your efforts in 2017 fell short. Whether you went Paleo, tried the Dukan Diet or cut out nearly everything that makes life worth living with the Whole30 Program, you might have found that the latest fad diets didn’t live up to their promises. Worst Diets of 2017 The worst diet of 2017, as ranked by U.S. News, was Whole30. For 30 days you are required to avoid all sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy. If you follow the 30 day program to the letter, it’s highly likely that you’ll lose weight. But as an overall health and wellness strategy, it falls far short of its claims to “change your life forever.” Nutritionists have slammed Whole30 for making outsized claims with no scientific support. By avoiding dairy, legumes and grains, you are cutting out a lot of essential nutrients, such as vitamin D and calcium. It is severely restrictive, and doesn’t help the dieter build a long-term strategy for a healthy lifestyle, which is the best way to improve your health. Following closely behind Whole30 was the Dukan Diet and Paleo. The Dukan diet was also criticized for being too restrictive with...

Why we STILL Don’t Have a Male Contraceptive

The first female pharmaceutical contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA in 1960. That’s 57 years ago! With all the advances in medical research, why do we still not have a pharmaceutical contraceptive for men? Too Much Risk with Too Little Reward Surely there are many men who would love to have the sort of agency over their reproductive capacity that women have had for nearly 60 years. However, for-profit pharmaceutical companies allocate their research funds to the most profitable ventures, such as cancer medications or those that treat heart conditions. Although some non-profit and governmental groups, such as the NIH, are funding contraceptive research, they tend to look for a private-sector partner to share the financial burden of Phase 3 clinical trials. In addition to liability and profit concerns, the female contraceptive pill has about a 91% effectiveness rate; a male pill would have to be at least close to that range to be a viable option, and even worse, the marketing team would have to start from scratch. Image: Syringe by Zaldylmg / CC by 2.0 Men Just Can’t Take the Heat The most promising research into a pharmaceutical option has been hormonal contraceptives. In fact, researchers published a 100-person clinical trial in 2016 that showed that an injectable hormone treatment suppressed sperm concentration in 95.9% of the patients, with a pregnancy rate of 1.57% among their female partners....

The Flu Shot: It’s Not Just About You

It’s that time of year again. The powers that be (a.k.a. the CDC) have hedged their bets on this year’s flu vaccine components, and they will be encouraging patients to get vaccinated before the end of October, so that the body has plenty of time to develop resistance before flu season sets in. For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC has recommended that three-component flu vaccines contain the following: – an A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated), – an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus, and – a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like (B/Victoria lineage) virus. Four-component vaccines are recommended to contain a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (B/Yamagata lineage) virus. In a deviation from previous years, the CDC recommends against using a nasal spray flu vaccine, also known as the live attenuated flu vaccine (LAIV) due to concerns about effectiveness. Sure, a shot can be a few seconds of pain, but it’s better than being laid out for days if you do contract the flu. For the first time, the CDC has approved a true cell-based candidate vaccine virus, in addition to those traditionally produced using fertilized chickens’ eggs. Many medical practitioners will likely get the flu vaccine, but how do we encourage more patients to get it too? Because the flu is not a reportable disease, the CDC uses modelling to estimate the number of infections each year. They currently estimate that in the U.S., the number of cases has been somewhere between 9.5 million and 35.6 million every year...

Want to Improve Fitness? Make it a Game

From studying, to exercising, to cleaning up, and yes, fitness – how do you make yourself do something that you don’t want to do? Make it a game! Even Mary Poppins tells us that “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,” and apps like Streaks are popping up all over the place to make a game out of any mundane activity. But does it work? Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University set out to test the theory that participants could be incentivized to increase their physical activity through the gamification of exercise. All participants in the study wore step counters to measure their daily activity and received feedback each day on their achievements. However, those in the intervention group were given the opportunity to earn points and progress through reward levels as they increased their physical activity. Image: Fitbit by Hamaza Butt / CC by 2.0 The designers of the study took special care to incorporate principles from behavioral economics to augment social incentives and overcome participation barriers. Studies have shown that people tend to be more motivated to avoid losses, and that good habits are better sustained with variable reinforcement. Participants were enrolled with their entire families, and asked to sign a commitment pledge to do their best during the trial. Each week the family was awarded 70 points,...

Robot Therapy: Can a Software Program Treat Depression?

Although traditional talk-therapy sessions are conducted face-to-face, advances in smartphone technology and video-calling have significantly altered the age old “therapy couch” model and brought talk therapy into the lives of people who aren’t able to visit a therapist regularly. Further advances in artificial intelligence may mean that someday patients might not need a therapist at all – just a computer program. Image: The Doctor Is In Your Pocket by Juhan Sonin /CC by 2.0 Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have developed and tested a computer program that directly interacts with patients, in between their regular therapy sessions, that helps to reinforce outcomes from the group therapy and teach techniques to manage stress. Advances in conversational artificial intelligence have enabled computer scientists to develop software programs that interact with patients, either through voice or text, in such a natural way that some patients’ brains respond to these programs the same way they would when talking to a human. These programs are known as “conversational agents,” and they have been particularly successful at psychological evaluations, as studies have shown that patients may be more likely to give open and honest responses when they believe they are speaking to a computer program rather than a human. The researchers at Northeastern found that, when combined with group therapy visits, patients who used the conversational agent along with their group sessions had significantly better...

Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures: The Opioid Epidemic and the Electronic Health Record

The over-prescription of medication has reached epidemic proportions. While politicians give speeches and draft legislature to address the opioid epidemic, the improper use of prescription medication impacts our society in many ways. For example, when a patient presents with a cold virus and is prescribed an antibiotic “just in case,” not only does the antibiotic cost the patient money, but it will have no effect on the cold virus. On a larger scale, these unnecessary antibiotics may encourage the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Most medical practices in America have adopted some sort of electronic health record system, but Americans have resisted a national electronic health record database, citing valid concerns about privacy and government overreach. However, Rumball-Smith et al., argue in JAMA that if carefully implemented and used wisely, the electronic health record (EHR) could address systematic problems when it comes to prescription drugs and “be a powerful vehicle for measurement and intervention around low-value care.” Image by mcfarlandmo / CC by 2.0 So why not implement a national database for electronic health records? The main advantage of this system is also the biggest threat – the ability to track information down the to the individual level presents an opportunity to intervene. But at what cost to privacy? A national EHR could show if a patient was soliciting pain medication from multiple doctors and flag that patient’s record. Or,...

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