Science, Health & Tech

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

An Allegheny County Councilman would like to know how much natural gas lies beneath the county's park system, and exactly how much money that gas is worth.

Councilman Matt Drozd (R-District 1) has introduced legislation calling for an inventory of the county's mineral resources, especially regarding the Marcellus Shale gas formation.

Corbett Offers Tax Break to Shell

Jun 5, 2012

In March, Shell Oil announced it was considering building a multi-billion dollar processing plant in Pennsylvania. Governor Tom Corbett wants to give Shell a $1.7 billion tax break to convince the energy giant to build an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County that would be used to convert natural gas compounds into chemicals used to make plastic.

Rare Phenomenon to Occur as Venus Passes Before Sun

Jun 4, 2012

There's only one way humans can see a planet moving in the sky, according to Dan Malerbo, education coordinator at Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Digital Planetarium & Observatory, and that's if the planet happens to pass directly in front of the sun. Venus will be doing just that during a rare phenomenon Tuesday, June 5, at 6:04 PM.

"It's one of the astronomical highlights of the century," Malerbo said, "and what it shows us is the workings of the inner solar system."

Starting in September health care insurers will be required to write their policies in plain language. Currently,the policy descriptions sent to customers by insurance companies tend to be long and difficult to figure out. The Summary of Benefits and Coverage, which is required by The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, changes that.

Pittsburgh Chosen for Science Pilot Program

May 31, 2012

Pittsburgh was chosen over about ten other cities in a search for a pilot program organized by two departments of the National Academies. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering are teaming up on the project and will begin the "Science and Engineering Ambassador Program" in the fall.

In March, an Allegheny General Hospital patient became the first there to undergo robotically-assisted minimally invasive coronary bypass surgery. The procedure is thought to be less traumatic to the body and allows for faster recovery times for patients.

Teenage athletes disproportionately estimate their recovery from concussions on physical symptoms like headache and nausea, according to a new study from UPMC.

The UPMC Center for Sports Medicine Concussion Program studied 101 concussed teen athletes to find that they often overlook non-physical symptoms like emotional distress, sleep problems, and difficulty in concentration when they are gauging their recoveries.

Robotic-assisted, laparoscopic surgery for prostate cancer has gained in popularity over the years, but a recent UPMC study found it doesn't yield better results than standard open surgery, though it costs a great deal more.

A new study released by the Trust For America's Health (TFAH) shows almost half of all U.S. states scored low on the Injury Prevention Report Card. The Facts Hurt: A State-By-State Injury Prevention Policy Report ranked states on ten indicators and 24 of them scored a five or lower.

The "Hard Head Patrol" is back this summer educating children of all ages on the importance of wearing a helmet when riding anything with wheels. The program sponsored by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh will begin this month and run through September.

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.

Pages