Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: Web/Tech

Cyberstalking: The emerging form of partner violence

June 23, 2010 | 11:34 am

Violence in intimate relationships is all too common -- just ask any cop who's responded to the calls. But younger generations who grew up with computer technology have more to worry about than a punch or slap. Cyberstalking is emerging as a form of partner violence that differs from traditional domestic abuse and is troubling in the ease in which it occurs.

Cyberbully stalking harassment In a study published this month, Kansas State University researcher Lisa A. Melander shines a light on how cyberstalking impacts college-age students. Gathering data in male-only or female-only focus groups, Melander found a range of cyber harassment, including sending unsolicited or threatening e-mails, posting hostile Internet messages and obtaining personal information about the victim without his or her consent.

The study found some differences in cyber harassment compared to face-to-face domestic violence. One, the conflict is quick and easy, so flare-ups occur in cyberspace when they might have blown over if people were only communicating in person. Two, matters that would typically be private become public very quickly -- meaning friends, relatives and others can be pulled into the situation and also suffer from the conflict. And, three, geographic location has no bearing on the situation. Victims can't always escape by changing their physical location.

Melander also found that, contrary to traditional violence where there is likely one abuser and one victim, cyber harassment can often involve both partners because of the back-and-forth that takes place. Moreover, when people communicate via computer they are less inhibited and don't have visual cues, such as facial expressions or tone of voice, to guide their interactions. That too can aggravate conflict that is being played out in cyberspace.

Melander concludes that computer technology "may change how relationship violence occurs among younger generations." A previous study suggested that about one-third of college students reported some form of computer-based harassment. But much more research is needed on the impact of the "darker side" of technology, she said.

The study is published in the June issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

Why overhearing cellphone conversations is annoying

May 20, 2010 |  9:46 am

Cellphone1 It's OK. You're not being unreasonably grumpy when you become irritated by a nearby cellphone conversation. A new study shows why the ever-present cellphone conversations going on around us -- in the grocery store, mall, airport, elevator, on the bus, etc. -- feel so intrusive.

Cellphones have made phone conversations ubiquitous. But many people confess to feeling a bit startled, then irritated, when they hear speech, think someone is talking to them and then realize the person nearby is talking to someone else on the phone. It turns out that our brains just don't like this phenomenon. Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people's reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.

The study showed that hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests. For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can't predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation -- making it harder to ignore.

Besides the mere annoyance factor, halfalogues can result in impaired performance in some settings, such as in a car. "These results suggest that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cellphone conversation," the authors wrote.

The study also provides more evidence that we understand speech, in part, by anticipating what someone will say.

"We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation," the lead author of the study, Lauren Emberson, said in a news release. "We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

Physician rating websites mainly sing doctors' praises, study finds

May 18, 2010 |  1:56 pm

DoctorRate Many doctors were considerably worried when websites began to pop up allowing consumers to rate their doctors. They feared disgruntled patients would harm their reputations and ruin their practices. Some even ask their patients to sign a "gag order" prohibiting them from expressing their opinions of the doctor on the Internet.

But a new study urges doctors to remain calm. The study, published online this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that the websites haven't caught on in any big way with consumers. Additionally, many of the reviews posted online are positive.

Dr. Tara Lagu, of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and her colleagues examined 33 physician rating sites that contained 190 reviews for 81 doctors. They found 88% of the reviews were positive, 6% negative and 6% neutral. General practitioners and specialists did not differ in the types of reviews they received.

Patients just don't appear too interested in providing feedback on their doctors, the authors noted, despite the fact that consumers generally love and use ratings systems. In contrast to the scarcity of doctor reviews, a search of restaurants in Boston's Beacon Hill area "turned up 38 narrative reviews for a single Lebanese restaurant," the authors pointed out

The American Medical Assn. has expressed concerns about such websites, saying that doctors wouldn't be able to respond to negative patient reviews because of patient confidentiality requirements. But the study found that many of the negative comments were about things like the lack of parking and waiting too long in the waiting room -- issues that can be addressed without violating patient confidentiality.

Ratings sites, of course, are subject to manipulation. Perhaps the most obvious tinkering found in the study was that several "narrative reviews" appeared to be written by the doctors themselves. The doctor rating websites overall were found to be "neither user-friendly nor patient-centered," the authors noted. Searching for information is cumbersome, information is incomplete and advertising is prevalent.

The sites have the potential to empower patients. And, to be sure, consumers today are encouraged to be smarter and more discriminating shoppers of healthcare services and products in order to reduce costs. But this is one Internet function that doesn't seem to do patients much good or doctors much harm.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

Doctors, patients and the Internet

March 27, 2010 |  7:00 am

I think most people appreciate using the Internet for accessing health information. But an editorial published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that at least some doctors aren't as comfortable with the technology and the way it has altered doctor-patient interactions.

Internet In their commentary, Dr. Pamela Hartzband and Dr. Jerome Groopman, both from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, write that the Internet's "profound effects derive from the fact that while previous technologies have been fully under doctors' control, the Internet is equally in the hands of patients. Such access is redefining the roles of physicians and patients."

Having your role redefined in such a dramatic way has to be a bit disconcerting for doctors. But the effect of the Internet on patient care can be viewed as positive or negative, as the editorial points out. On one hand, the Internet has given consumers important information to help them make good healthcare decisions and improve quality of care. On the other hand, there are many myths and false assertions on the Internet that can lead people astray. Hartzband and Groopman point out that patients can now access their lab test results online in some medical centers. But, in doing so, they receive information without their doctor's input or any context. Doctors and patients can exchange e-mails to facilitate communications, they note. But doctors aren't paid for that activity.

The authors argue that the Internet should not change the "core relationship" of face-to-face doctor-patient communication that relies on what doctor and patient bring to the table. "The doctor, in our view, will never be optional," they write.

I agree. And patient knowledge and empowerment, afforded by the Internet and other resources, will never slide back to those old days when only the doctor's brains and opinion counted.

-- Shari Roan

Glenn Koenig  /  Los Angeles Times

Drink soda, gain 10 pounds of fat a year!

December 18, 2009 |  7:21 am
If you can’t win hearts and minds, appeal to their stomachs. That's seems to be the philosophy of the New York City health department, which recently released nauseating videos of a man attempting to drink what looks like a gloopy, gelatinous cup of fat.

Viewers seem to have gotten the hint -- but they're spitting it right back out. New Yorkers had had it up to here. They’d been putting up with subway ads sending the same message, as well as a failed proposal for a soda tax this year. "I want this on my Ipod," one commenter at New York Magazine said of the video.

Then again, said commenter Alexandre Laudet over at the Huffington Post, "We are so bombarded with info we almost need to be shocked into listening at times so if it works, why not?"

The American Beverage Assn. called the ads "sensationalized." That may be so -- and it may have inspired the contrarian consumer to crack open another can of soda -- but I'll bet you a mineral water that anyone who's seen the ad will think twice before taking that first sip.

-- Amina Khan

Forget carrots, just play video games

March 29, 2009 | 10:00 am

Here's some evidence that video games may be good for you after all.

People who played 50 hours of action video games showed significant improvement in contrast sensitivity function, a key aspect of vision, according to a study published online today in Nature Neuroscience.

Callofduty Contrast sensitivity function refers to the ability to detect small differences in shades of gray, and it is one of the most vulnerable elements of vision. Scientists believe it is affected by deterioration of the eye itself.

But a team of researchers from University of Rochester and Tel Aviv University suspected that changes in the brain played a role as well. If so, they reasoned, mental exercise could offer some improvement.

To find out, they recruited video game novices in their 20s and asked some of them to play Atari’s Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2 by Infinity Ward, two fast-paced games that require players to aim and shoot weapons from a variety of battle vehicles. Others were assigned to The Sims 2 from Electronic Arts, an elaborate simulation game that doesn’t ask players to make any quick or visually precise moves. Participants were asked to play their games for a total of 50 hours over nine weeks.

The researchers measured each player’s contrast sensitivity function before and after their training and found that people assigned to the shoot-'em-up games improved by an average of 58%. Those who played the Sims improved too, but not as much as those who played the action games, according to the study. The benefits lasted for months and even years.

“The very act of action video game playing also enhanced contrast sensitivity,” the authors wrote. “More generally, our results establish that time spent in front of a computer screen is not necessarily detrimental to vision.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: A scene from "Call of Duty 2." Credit: Activision

Google Flu Tracker shows where flu is spreading

November 11, 2008 |  4:11 pm

Sneeze1 Under the surveillance systems used by federal health officials, it can take two weeks or longer to confirm that influenza has spread to a particular state or region of the country. Now, however,, the philanthropic arm of Google, has demonstrated it can track flu cases faster by analyzing the use of common search terms, such as "flu" and "flu-like" and "flu vaccine," to estimate flu activity.

Google Flu Trends surveillance tool was launched today and shows little activity in the nation so far. The tool compares data from this season to data collected during the 2007-2008 flu activity. Last year's data was compared to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to verify that the Google flu tracker is accurate. While not everyone who searches flu terms on the Internet has the flu, a pattern emerges when all flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together.

"This could conceivably provide as early a warning of an outbreak as any system," Lyn Finelli of the CDC's influenza division told The New York Times. "The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza."

— Shari Roan

Photo credit: Peter Adams/For the Times

Young adults seek healthcare advice from Dr. Web

August 5, 2008 | 10:30 am

During my years as a health reporter, I have often spoken to physicians who are frustrated when patients disagree with the doctor's advice because of something they have read on the Internet.


Doctors should brace themselves for more challenges from patients who have already consulted Dr. Web. A survey by the healthcare marketing and communications company Envision Solutions LLC shows that more than one-third of adults have doubted a medical professional's opinion or diagnosis because it conflicts with information they have found online. The survey was conducted online and involved 1,000 adults ages 18 and older. The findings include:

  • Among those ages 18 to 34, 43% said they doubted their health provider's advice when it conflicted with online sources.
  • Latinos are least likely to rely on traditional authority figures. Only 34% said they would consult their primary health providers first if they were diagnosed with a medical condition compared with 62% of whites and 61% of African-Americans.
  • Very few Americans trust institutions such as government, the media and nonprofits as highly credible health sources.

That last finding confounds me, I must admit. In defense of the media, we bend over backward to provide accurate, balanced information. And we often turn to government sources as unbiased providers of facts and statistics and to nonprofits to provide a point of view that represents patients.

But, as the survey points out, the majority of Americans still trust their healthcare providers the most. After all, they did go to med school. You can access the report at Envision Solutions.

-- Shari Roan


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