Health Highlights: July 9, 2015

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Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Medicare Will Pay for End-of-Life Counseling

A plan to pay doctors to counsel patients about end-of-life care was announced Wednesday by Medicare.

The policy change will take effect Jan. 1 and counseling will be voluntary for patients, the Associated Press reported.

Some doctors already provide end-of-life counseling without billing extra, and some private insurers have started offering reimbursement for such services. However, Medicare covers 55 million seniors, so this decision could make end-of-life counseling much more common, the wire service reported.

The counseling -- which Medicare calls advance care planning -- is meant to enable patients to decide about the type of treatment they want in their final days. Choices will range from an emphasis on comfort rather than extending life to all-out efforts to keep a dying patient alive.

"As a practicing physician, and a son, and someone who has dealt with this in his own family, I would say these are discussions . . . that are critical to high-quality care," said Patrick Conway, Medicare's chief medical officer, the AP reported.

"I would want any American who wanted to have this conversation with their clinician to have the opportunity to do so," he added.

The new policy was welcomed by the American Medical Association (AMA).

"This issue has been mischaracterized in the past and it is time to facilitate patient choices about advance care planning," Andrew Gurman, president-elect of the AMA, told the AP.

Cost of care will not be part of the end-of-life counseling approved by Medicare. However, many experts believe it could lead to lower medical costs for dying patients, the wire service reported.

An Institute of Medicine report released last year said that few people make their end-of-life wishes known and that too many dying patients have more unpleasant and painful deaths than necessary due to the use of feeding tubes, powerful drugs, breathing machines and other intensive treatments.

"End-of-life discussions should be part of the life cycle," report co-chair Dr. Philip Pizzo, former dean of Stanford University medical school, told the AP. "Beginning Medicare is one of those times, since it can be a point of awareness and reflection."


Many People Stop Using Fitness Trackers Within a Few Months

Many Americans buy fitness trackers, but their enthusiasm for the devices tends to be short-lived, a new report shows.

About one-third of fitness trackers are no longer used by people six months after they get them, according to the research firm Endeavour Partners, the Associated Press reported.

Fitbit is a popular brand of fitness tracker, but only half of Fitbit's nearly 20 million registered users were still active as of the first quarter of 2015, according to regulatory filings by the company, the wire service reported.

Fitness trackers cost about $100 and are often given as gifts. However, fitness trackers now have competition from smartwatches that do what fitness trackers do and more, the AP reported.

Fitbit -- which has 76 percent of the U.S. market share of fitness trackers by revenue -- started trading publicly last month.

"The question for investors is how long the market will continue to grow at this rate, and whether Fitbit can execute on growing engagement before . . . the number of devices sold per year reaches saturation," Malay Gandhi, a managing director at Rock Health, wrote on a blog, the AP reported.

Fitbit intends to remain a market leader through new features and services, the company said in a statement. It didn't discuss owners who've stopped using the device, according to the AP.


Minnesota Health Officials Investigating Possible Case of Brain-Eating Amoeba

State health officials are investigating if a brain-eating amoeba infected a child while swimming in a Minnesota lake.

The unidentified youngster developed a rare, severe brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), which can occur when an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri travels through the nasal cavity to the brain, ABC News reported.

The child developed symptoms after swimming in a lake and remains in critical condition, state health officials said.

While serious, N. fowleri infections are rare. There are zero to eight parasitic amoeba infections in the United States each year and nearly all are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ABC News reported.


WHO's Response to Ebola Outbreak Slowed by Politics and Bureaucracy: Report

Politics and bureaucracy slowed the World Health Organization's response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, according to a report from an independent, international panel.

It also said the three affected countries -- Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea -- acted slowly and that the international community also shares blame because it has underfunded the WHO and left it weak and inept, NBC News reported.

"The Panel believes that this is a defining moment for the health of the global community. WHO must re-establish its pre-eminence as the guardian of global public health; this will require significant changes throughout WHO," the panel wrote.

"The world simply cannot afford another period of inaction until the next health crisis," the panel added.

The WHO didn't declare a health emergency in West Africa until Aug. 8, 2014, months after the Ebola epidemic had started, and WHO officials have admitted several times that they were too slow to act, NBC News reported.

So far, more than 27,500 people have been infected and more than 11,000 have died in the epidemic.

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