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Big year for health and medical news

From Florida's efforts to dethrone itself as the pill mill capital of the nation, to new questions about old drugs, 2011 was a big year in health news. Among the year's most significant health headlines:

PILL NATION: In its fight against prescription drug abuse, Florida launched a statewide drug database, banned doctors from dispensing drugs such as oxycodone directly from their offices, and saw a major law enforcement initiative called "Pill Nation" yield more than 100 arrests and the closure of more than 40 pain clinics.

HOSPITALS GROW AND CHANGE: All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg became part of the prestigious Johns Hopkins Health System; BayCare Health System acquired Suncoast Medical Clinic, while also expanding its facilities at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital in Tampa and St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg; and Adventist renamed the University Community Health System as Florida Hospital.

OH, THE TRAUMA: For-profit Hospital Corporation of America opened new trauma centers at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson and Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, though existing centers continue to dispute the provisional approvals as unneeded and potentially harmful to patient care.

NEW IDENTITY AND DOLLARS FOR USF: The University of South Florida renamed its medical school as the Morsani College of Medicine, after philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani made a $20 million donation. USF also added to an already impressive tally of diabetes research dollars with two grants totaling $60 million. It also opened a new center for Alzheimer's care.

BIG GOVERNMENT OR GOOD PUBLIC HEALTH? Pinellas commissioners voted to end the fluoridation of its drinking water to about 700,000 residents of the county and most Pinellas cities on Dec. 31. Dentists and other health advocates vowed to fight back against a ruling that drew national attention and bewilderment.

HOW MUCH WILL THAT BE? Beginning July 1, urgent care clinics in Florida were required to post the prices of their 50 most commonly provided services, a move consumer advocates hope will expand to other medical facilities.

BETTER THAN AN F: Florida earned a D on a national report card for the state's pre-term birth rate — after three straight years of F grades.

LIPITOR GOES GENERIC: The U.S. patent on the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor — the biggest-selling drug of all time — expired, paving the way for cheaper, generic versions of the drug to be sold under its chemical name, atorvastatin.

DIABETES CONTROVERSY: The Food and Drug Administration placed limits on the use of the type 2 diabetes drug Avandia, three years after evidence emerged that it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. Now diabetics, whose numbers are growing as the nation ages, are choosing among other drugs, all with their own side effects.

TIME FOR A PLAN C? Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared that the contraceptive pill Plan B One-Step (aka the "morning after pill'') should no longer be available over the counter to girls ages 16 and under. It was the first time an HHS secretary ever overruled a decision by the Food and Drug Administration.

UNAVAILABLE AT ANY PRICE: More than 200 drugs, ranging from cancer and pain treatments to those needed to provide basic nutrients to patients on IV feeding, made their way onto the FDA's drug shortage list, sending doctors, hospitals and patients scrambling for substitutes as drugmakers and regulators tried to deal with the problem.

MORE HARM THAN HELP? The continuing debate over certain cancer screenings heated up in October with the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's recommendation against screening men for prostate cancer using routine PSA blood tests. Critics say the test frequently produces incorrect results, and many prostate cancers are too slow-growing to be deadly, making the treatment more dangerous than the disease.

MORE HARM THAN HELP, PART 2? Despite vigorous lobbying from breast cancer advocates, the FDA also ruled this year that the drug Avastin should not be used to treat breast cancer that has spread to other organs because it doesn't help patients enough to justify its risky side effects. It is still approved for other cancers.

MAKE MINE JAVA: Various studies in 2011 linked daily coffee intake with lower rates of cancers such as endometrial, prostate, basal cell carcinoma and some post-menopause breast cancers, as well as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and type 2 diabetes.

SO, WHICH IS IT? A University of Manchester study found early in the year that although cell phone use has increased enormously, brain cancer rates have hardly budged. Then the World Health Organization heard from an expert panel saying that cell phones "may'' cause cancer. Stay tuned for more next year.

WHAT'S ON YOUR PLATE? The U.S. Department of Agriculture replaced its hard-to-understand food pyramid with a My Plate healthy eating guide to provide a simpler way to gauge the healthy balance between vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins.

MAYBE NOT CANTALOUPE. A late-summer outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe was linked to more than 20 deaths in the U.S. and sickened more than 100 people, raising new concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply.

ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, KIDS: The British Medical Journal published evidence that Dr. Andrew Wakefield deliberately faked results in his long-discredited "research'' linking childhood vaccines with autism. Still, many parents refuse the vaccines, and preventable diseases like whooping cough have been on the rise around the United States.

YOU TOO, GUYS: A federal vaccination panel recommended that adolescent boys get the controversial HPV vaccine as protection against cancers and diseases that can result from being sexually active. The vaccine already was recommended for girls because it protects against a virus that leads to cervical cancer.

MEDICAL MIRACLE: The nation saw its first full-face transplant in 2011, when a team at Boston's Brigham and Women's hospital gave a new face to a 28-year-old man who had lost most of his in an accident. "Definitely, it's a miracle,'' said the grandfather of Dallas Wiens, who recovered well.

SILVER TSUNAMI: With the first baby boomers turning 65 in 2011, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease — now totalling 5.4 million — began to surge at a faster clip. Unless a cure is found, experts predict the number will grow to 13.5 million by 2050. Some of the most promising research news in 2011 involved ways to find the disease at its earliest stages, when it may be possible to halt progression.

HELP FROM MOM, DAD — AND THE FEDS: Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, better known to its critics as Obamacare, more than 2.5 million adult children between the ages of 19 to 26 were allowed to remain on their parents' health insurance plans in 2011, marking a 4 percent decline in the number of young Americans with no health coverage.

Compiled by staff writer Richard Martin from Times wires and files. Information from WebMD and The Atlantic also was used.

Big year for health and medical news 12/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 9:55pm]
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