January, 2010

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Why Health Care Reform Is Essential to You and Your Family – Even if You’re Insured

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Last night, President Obama, in his State of the Union address, reminded us why we need real health care reform.

First, I’ll quote a few of the points the president made and then I’ll explain why it matters to each of us, currently insured or not:

“The approach we’ve taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market.  It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care.

“… It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office – the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress – our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.”

When the president spoke of the insurance companies “worst practices” he didn’t elaborate. But it’s those practices that make us all, insured or not, vulnerable, and in need of reform. Too many Americans believe that they have great health insurance – right up to the moment when they get sick and find that their insurance won’t cover their medical bills.

Recently, one of the organizations advocating on behalf of health care reform shared the case histories of numerous people who, although insured, were unable to get their medical bills paid when they got sick. The following few cases are among dozens of similar stories. If we don’t think it can happen to you, you’re wrong. I speak from experience. Although I’m a doctor, when my daughter became ill, her insurance refused to cover all her medical costs and I had to pay tens of thousands out of pocket.

  • An AT&T worker from Arkansas was in a coma for three weeks after a 2004 horseback riding accident. She and her husband had to pay more than $200,000 in medical bills because UnitedHealthcare wouldn’t cover her emergency surgery.
  • A Realtor from Delaware, has a health care plan that forces her to pay for her cancer care “out of pocket.” She has turned to getting her chemotherapy medication from India in order to afford it.
  • A minister from Tennessee has almost $175,000 in medical debt due to his wife’s muscular disorder. The family had health insurance through his wife’s job as an insurance claims adjuster, but the health insurance would only cover 14 days of her 91 days in intensive care.

Don’t let anyone tell you that if you’re insured, you don’t need to support health care reform. As the above cases illustrate, this affects us all. While there is no longer any chance of passing a new bill through the United States Senate, the House can vote for the Senate bill that passed over Christmas eve now and make changes over time.  It may be our last chance for reform in a generation. Please call your Congressperson today and remind him or her what’s at stake.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

New Moms: Don’t feel guilty if you’re not breastfeeding

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

If you’re pregnant or have recently had a baby, you’ve probably heard that breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do for your baby. Other mothers will tell you so. Books extol breastfeeding’s virtues. Even the government gives mothers a nudge in this direction.

But what if your schedule doesn’t make breastfeeding a viable option?

Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re an inadequate parent if you give your baby a bottle instead. There are no randomized clinical trials that prove the virtues of breast milk over formula feeding. And most working mothers simply don’t have the opportunity to breastfeed in our society, at least not exclusively.

When public lactation stations become the norm, and when most workplaces have specifically designated areas for breastfeeding, then it will make sense for more women to consider the breastfeeding-only option.

Until then, in a society where many women are either single parents or are the primary family breadwinners, exclusive breastfeeding must be seen as an unrealistic – and maybe even a chauvinistic — recommendation.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Compared to white babies, twice as many African-American babies die in their first year of life

Monday, January 18th, 2010

As we celebrate the birthday of one of America’s greatest African-American leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, and we take pride in the leadership of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, it’s easy to assume that racial disparities are a thing of the past.

But our infant mortality rates tell us that that’s not so.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), infant mortality among African-American babies is more than twice that of white babies. Among the other troubling statistics in the CDC report:

  • African Americans had 1.8 times the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites, in 2005.
  • African American mothers were 2.5 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the 3rd trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all.
  • The infant mortality rate for African American mothers with over 13 years of education was almost three times that of Non-Hispanic White mothers in 2005.

America is still a country where people of color face discrimination at every turn, even if it’s less overt than it was in our past. Bias limits educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and it even limits the opportunity of pregnant women to get access to good healthcare.

If Dr. King could see us today, I know he’d be pleased at how far we’ve come. But if we haven’t provided our youngest and most vulnerable citizens equality in medical care, we still have a long way to go.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Leading Ob-Gyn Group Backs Findings of My Weight Gain in Pregnancy Study

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Last June, in the Journal of the National Medical Association, I published the results of clinical trials that showed that it was safe for obese pregnant women who followed a well-balanced diet to gain little or no weight. Prior to my study, the conventional wisdom was that all women, even obese ones, should gain 26 to 35 pounds. That guidance had come from the most august body of ob-gyns in the U.S., The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), whose recommendations were based upon what we knew in the 1980s. That was before we fully understood the dangers of obesity in pregnancy. Yet, the guidelines had never been updated.

Being obese during pregnancy greatly increases the risks of preeclampsia, diabetes, stillbirth, and blood clots, among other problems. Gaining more weight if you’re already obese makes complications more likely while limiting weight gain makes them less so.

But until my study was published, obstetricians lacked the evidence that limiting weight gain among pregnant women was safe. The ACOG’s guidance from the 1980s stated that, unless a woman, obese or not, gained at least 26 pounds, the baby in her womb would be at risk of dying.

Right before my study results were published, a government body recommended that obese women gain somewhat less weight: between 11 and 20 pounds. It was a start but still not enough. And most board certified obstetricians would wait for the ACOG to – you’ll excuse the pun – weigh in before they changed their practices.

I’m delighted to say that, in a commentary in the peer-reviewed journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the ACOG has just come out in favor of limiting weight gain among obese pregnant women. My study, which was quoted in the commentary, appears to have been instrumental in effecting this turnaround.

Now that the ACOG is changing its recommendations, obstetricians are more likely to change how they manage their patients. Fewer women will be told that it’s fine to gain weight during pregnancy if you’re already obese. And that will mean healthier moms and healthier babies.

I’m proud to have played a role in helping to make this happen.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH