Monthly Archives: January 2010

Margaret McCartney

Following the Christmas day bomb attempt on a US aircraft, the British and American governments have vowed to tighten airport security, including plans for CT body scanners. This has raised concerns – not least that the images generated by the scanner would infringe on personal privacy. The more pressing issue for me is radiation exposure. How big a dose will these scanners deliver, and can we be reassured that they are not going to do us harm? Attitudes towards radiation have changed over the years. While nowadays doctors are told to justify every single exposure, this has not always been the case. In the US, in the 1920s, children’s shoe shops often used x-ray machines to assess whether shoes and feet were a good match. (The trend reached the UK later.)

There were no warnings about overuse or risks to pregnant women, and it wasn’t until 1949 that a paper appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine questioning the practice. In 1956 a paper appeared in the British Medical Journal investigating the radiation dose from machines made in the UK. Attention was also drawn to case reports of children with abnormalities of the leg, thought to be due to radiation. The authors didn’t propose a ban, but they did suggest regulation.

Continue reading “Long-haul radiation”

Margaret McCartney

So last week I had several emails, and then saw several adverts/advertorial, for a device which is being sold in Boots, called ‘Breast Light’. It is almost 90 UK pounds, and it is being given a prominent position in my local store. The website for it claims it is ‘for earlier detection’.

I asked the pharmacist why Boots was selling it. She said it was for patient choice, and it was a useful thing for women to have. I asked her what the evidence was that it worked. She told me to look at the website. Hmm.

By Rebecca Knight

Can something as simple as the timing of when we take a coffee break help us better remember the presentation we just attended, or retain the details of the podcast we just heard?
A study by researchers at New York University thinks it can. In an experiment focused on memory consolidation – the phase when a memory is stabilised after it is originally created – the researchers found that memories are reinforced during periods of rest while we are awake. Past studies had shown this process occurs during sleep, not when we are wide-awake but resting.
Put simply: taking a break after a meeting can actually help you retain information because your brain wants you to tune out other things, so you can tune in to what you just learned.

Margaret McCartney

The NHS ”Distinction Award” Scheme was set up as a way to reward hospital consultants for being extra-good.

If they wrote books, set up services, pioneered, discovered or whatever, then there was the possibility, after the decision of a closed-door committee, of an award (at levels 1-8, then the shiny upper echelons of bronze, silver, gold and platinum).

At the top end of the scale (and I should say that these are the minority of awards) they are worth just above £70,000. That’s on top of basic wages.

Margaret McCartney

A nurse in Glasgow has been suspended, pending an investigation about photographs of patients, having surgery, being posted on Facebook. Not very nice, we may think.

Nurse suspended for putting photographs of patients taken during operations on Facebook

What I find just as concerning though is the reaction of the Chair of the Patients Association in Scotland, Margaret Watt: “Any nurse caught doing this should be sacked, if not sectioned. Putting pictures of patients in hospital on the internet is a gross breach of their human rights and dignity – the worst I have ever heard of.”

Spot the absolutely inane, anarchic and thoroughly degrading reference to mental illness there. Is this really the kind of attitude that should belong to one in such a position?

Margaret McCartney

Magical powers are always being squeezed from fruit. The latest is derived from the pomegranate, which is said to tackle drug-resistant infections such as MRSA.

This claim, by a team from the University of Kingston in Surrey, tells me two things. First, media reporting doesn’t always recognise the discrepancy between laboratory experiments and real life ones. If something works in the lab – Kingston reports “moderate” effects – there’s no certainty that it will work in practice. Second, the prospect of a cure for one superbug has obscured the fact that others are still at large.

MRSA is not the only resistant bacteria causing problems. There are Klebsiella pneumonia, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Acinetobacter baumanni, and that’s just the start of a very long list. MRSA used to be sensitive to vancomycin, an antibacterial – but now there are strains showing resistance. And of course there is clostridium difficle, caused when antibiotic use destabilises the balance of bacteria in the gut.

Continue reading “The war on superbugs”

Margaret McCartney

Part of UK NHS development has been to make some nurses specialists in their area. Some aspects of this are not new – if you keep people learning and involved in a certain area – diabetes, say, or asthma – they are going to get very familiar with management of that particular condition.

The NHS and Department of Health, though, have moved things further yet – for example, by allowing nurses to prescribe any medicine after a few weeks training. Not everyone has “done the course” however, or wants to sign their name – which means that phone calls are not unusual from, say, the pain nurse, the respiratory nurse, or the terminal care nurse asking for a patient to be given whatever drug.

Margaret McCartney

I do think that Karsten Jorgensen and Peter Gotzsche deserve a medal. Over the years they have worked in the Nordic Cochrane Centre they have published, unwaveringly, what their research has shown. This is, namely, that breast screening is not very efficient and causes harm.

It shouldn’t be such a big deal – research papers come out all the time arguing against what is commonly being done. But the problem with breast screening is that it seems to contain an enormous amount of emotional investment, and the only parallel I can think of is alternative medicine.

Margaret McCartney

Cannabis and the law have a clear relationship; to take the former is to break the latter. For years, pressure has been mounting on the government to change this position. And not just for recreational reasons, but medical ones too. It is often claimed, for example, that cannabis improves the lives of multiple sclerosis sufferers.

A recent systematic review of the evidence in BMC Neurology found that cannabis did help alleviate spasticity, the uncomfortable cramp that can become constant in MS, making affected limbs hard to use. But while patients reported an improvement following treatment, objective measurements did not show any significant change.

Spasticity may not be affected by cannabis; the drug may instead be treating muscle tension and discomfort. That doesn’t mean cannabis is not useful. Indeed, another review published last year in Pain Medicine found that “cannabis treatment is moderately efficacious for the treatment of chronic pain”. But it also noted that “beneficial effects may be partially (or completely) offset by potentially serious harms”.

Continue reading “Leaf that brings relief”

By Rebecca Knight

Most of the time blogging for’s health section is a lot of fun. I get to write about cool breakthrough technologies and therapies that might change the way our bodies fight disease. I get to learn about the latest studies that could have a practical impact on nutrition, fitness and family health. And plus I get to read comments from readers all over the world about how they view health and wellbeing. It’s not a bad gig.
But every once in a while I come across a piece of science news that is rather depressing. That happened this week. 

Health and science blog (Archived)

This blog, part of the FT's health series, is a forum for readers interested in the science, policy, management, technology, business and delivery of healthcare.

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog:

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow