Science, Health & Tech

We cover these essential linchpins of the Pittsburgh regional economy, and how they impact residents' personal health and employment. 

The growing popularity of telemedicine may still be out of reach to some, but Pennsylvania is trying to close that gap. Governor Tom Corbett has announced that the state will increase patients' access to specialist care through telemedicine by expanding coverage for people covered by the Medical Assistance Program.

"How this will work is using technology like interactive audio and video equipment, doctors and patients will be able to connect from remote locations," said Carey Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

Several years ago Paul Getsy woke up and went to work like any other normal day. He put on a headset and thought the right ear had stopped working, only to discover it was actually his ear that wasn't working. Getsy suffered what's called sudden sensorineural hearing loss. That's a fast, frequently one-sided and often uncorrectable hearing loss that occurs when there is damage to the inner ear. A steroid treatment didn't work, and traditional hearing aids don't do much for people with this type of hearing loss.

Screening for colorectal cancer has shown to be effective and decrease the likelihood of death caused by colon cancer, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. University of Pittsburgh Professor of Medicine Dr. Robert Schoen, the lead author, said that the screening exam was not a full-blown colonoscopy.

A special type of cardiac ultrasound developed at UPMC allows doctors to pinpoint the placement of pacemaker wires on the heart, according to a recent study from the hospital system.

Principal investigator Dr. Samir Saba said the speckle tracking echo technique improves upon doctors' methods of placing the left ventricular wires for biventricular pacemakers.

Well, it would improve the current technique if there were any standard method of placing those wires.

Asthma Summit Highlights Regional Problems

May 16, 2012

Pollution and high obesity rates help to make Pittsburgh fourth highest in the nation for asthma rates, according to experts at an asthma summit on the North Side on Wednesday.

Speakers at "The Air We Breathe" summit highlighted links between asthma and obesity in children, as well as the role played by air pollution and viral infections.

A research team at the University of Pittsburgh has discovered a possible treatment for Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), just four years after determing the cause of the rare skin cancer.

The husband-and-wife team of Dr. Patrick Moore and Dr. Yuan Chang has found that the experimental drug YM155 is an "extremely potent killer" of MCC tumors in laboratory mice.

Moore said the drug was not toxic to the rodents, so human trials are expected to begin within six months.

ACHD Warns Whooping Cough is On the Rise

May 9, 2012

The Allegheny County Health Department is reminding the public to get vaccinated for pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Department spokesman Dave Zazac noted there have been 46 confirmed or probable pertussis cases countywide this year, far above the typical average of seven. He said the bacterial infection can be picked up by touching tissues with the disease, or by coming into contact with bacteria put in the air through coughing.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used a popular social network called Foursquare to get a better understanding of the city. Foursquare allows users to "check in" at a location, and it posts the information online.

Wheelchairs break 40% more often than they used to, according to a new study by researchers at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The incidence of breakdowns in previous years was already high, according to senior author Dr. Michael Boninger, but a surge in failures since 2006 has left more people with spinal-chord injuries in inconvenient and unsafe situations.

Members of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) and Allegheny County residents implored the County Board of Health Wednesday to pass updated and strengthened air toxic guidelines (ATG), the document used to permit new sources of air pollution in the county.

GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said the hope was that the board would have new guidelines to consider at their meeting on Wednesday, but they didn't.

County Health Board Names Interim Director

May 2, 2012

The Allegheny County Board of Health has appointed Ronald Voorhees as interim director. This comes after the board ousted County Health Director Bruce Dixon after 20 years on the job. He'll be leaving in early June.

"It is the intention of the board to hold a national search for a permanent director, and that process will begin. We've already posted the job description," said Board Chair Lee Harrison.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark Inc. have agreed to another extension. This one will provide in-network access for Highmark Commercial and Medicare Advantage members to all UPMC hospitals and physicians through the end of 2014.

The new deal replaces a one-year contract extension that was set to expire June 30, 2013.

While making the announcement, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said he hopes the two non-profits will continue to meet to try and hammer out a deal that will extend beyond December 31, 2014.

New VA Facility to Streamline Services

May 2, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In a space that was until recently a parking lot now stands the newest addition to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

It took more than a decade for it to come together, but the new facility in Oakland is being touted as the future of veteran-centered health care.

New features include 78 private beds for psychiatric care in the same building as an outpatient primary-care center that providers hope will streamline services.

A team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh has taken a look at the childbirth procedures and delivery suites at Magee-Women's Hospital to understand and suggest ways to improve sustainability in the practice.

Melissa Bilec, an assistant professor in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, led the research that is considered the first of its kind. The researchers used a Life Cycle Assessment to determine environmental impacts of childbirth in a hospital setting.

Carnegie Mellon University is offering free sightseeing visits to the roof of the U.S. Steel Tower.

Well, sort of.

Students and staff at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center have constructed a virtual world in which the one-acre space atop the skyscraper becomes an entertainment destination.

David Bear of CMU's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry said visitors to the "High Point Pittsburgh" website can wander through a three-story glass enclosure that includes a stage, a gallery, a restaurant, and even a green space.

Families were given an eight-month period from the beginning of the school year to make sure their children are fully vaccinated. But enough students were not in compliance that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has extended the deadline by two weeks.

"Two weeks depends on the school district. It's eight months from the start date of school," said Department of Health Spokeswoman Christine Cronkright. "In some school districts, that day is coming today; some, it's tomorrow; it depends on when that school district began school."

A report this week from The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) showed that more than 10 percent of those released from hospitals in Pennsylvania are readmitted within 30 days and that means a huge cost for taxpayers. Readmissions for Medicare patients alone accounted for more than a half billion dollars in spending in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Therapists, counselors, prosecuting and defense attorneys, family court judges, medical personnel and law enforcement officials filled the auditorium of the IBEW Local Union No. 5 this morning in the South Side for a conference on child maltreatment.

Janet Squires, Chief of the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said the conference helps guide people to protect children's rights while understanding their profession's responsibilities.

The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) conducted a first-of-its-kind study examining the hospital readmission rate of adults ages 18 and older statewide. The group found that about 13.5% of hospital stays were followed by at least one readmission within 30 days. About a third of those readmissions were the direct result of a complication or infection. But, that doesn't necessarily mean there was a problem with the patient's care. PHC4 Spokesman Gary Tuma said a number of factors could be at play.

Department of Health Practices Emergency Response

Apr 24, 2012

A three-day disaster drill tested Pennsylvania emergency services across the state this weekend. Teams assembled in Lebanon, Clearfield, and Lehigh Counties to practice their response to disaster scenarios.

Joe Schmider, State Director for the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, said participants treated the situations as if they were real, and were not told what they would encounter during exercises.

He said, when actual disasters occur, resources become strained, and practice sessions help them to learn to cope when an emergency presents itself.

Washington & Jefferson College hopes to elevate the debate over America's energy policy with a new index of annual data from the federal government.

The college's Center for Energy Policy and Management will oversee the new Energy Index. CEPM Director Diana Stares said the database will provide lawmakers with unbiased information.

Act 13 is the recently-passed law that regulates oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania. There are many provisions within it, including impact fees for counties, chemical disclosure regulations, and where energy development can take place. But, it's a legislative document and is therefore long and sometimes hard to understand. That's where Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) comes in. The non-profit environmental advocacy group has released a plain-language guide and analysis.

Pennsylvania Seeks Emergency Volunteers

Apr 23, 2012

Volunteer efforts in the wake of natural or manmade disasters are often the piece that brings hope and humanity back to a hurting area.

The state's Department of Health is urging Pennsylvanians to join the network of registered volunteers, SERVPA, during the week set aside by Gov. Tom Corbett as Volunteer Week, now through April 21.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Pittsburgh Friday, praising one of the largest pipeline modernization projects in the nation's history. Hundreds of thousands of pipes run under communities in the U.S., transporting natural gas, but many are very old and some are starting to crumble.

A year ago, Secretary LaHood called upon pipeline operators to take a hard look at their infrastructure and make needed improvements. He says companies such as NiSource, which includes Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, took that call and ran with it.

Food Justice is focusing on bringing about equity in terms of access to healthier foods in all communities. The food justice movement is a fast-growing one, as more attention is being paid to childhood obesity and the higher rates of obesity among minority groups.

"What we know from research is that communities that are primarily African American, as well as Latino, tend to have fewer grocery stores where you can find greater access to a variety of foods and lower-cost foods," said Monica Baskin, associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

A report issued by the RAND Corporation finds that using abandoned mine drainage for hydraulic fracturing gas wells could be employed more frequently in future development, thereby lessening the burden on fresh water supplies. The report, funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, concludes that drainage from closed mines is plentiful, and the technology to use it is feasible.

The Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park is the subject of a new film to be debuted Wednesday night. Undaunted looks at the history of the University of Pittsburgh owned and operated facility, first opened in 1867, and the people that brought it to life. The film goes so far as to call it the true birthplace of aviation and the field of astrophysics.

Monday, April 16, 2012

As men and women return from military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they go through a significant adjustment as they rejoin civilian life. Part of that adjustment is figuring how to communicate their experience at war. This can be especially challenging for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who are trying to build new, romantic relationships.

For Veterans Coming Home Isn't Always Easy

Apr 16, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

Somerset County Latest to Enact Marcellus Impact Fee

Apr 11, 2012

The Somerset County Commission has voted to enact an impact fee on Marcellus drilling operations, though at this point, they're not sure how much money that will mean for the county. At a meeting Tuesday Commissioners John Vatavuk and Joe Betta approved the fee. Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes was absent from the meeting, though Betta said she does support the move.

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