Science, Health & Tech

We cover these essential linchpins of the Pittsburgh regional economy, and how they impact residents' personal health and employment. 

Families were given an eight-month period from the beginning of the school year to make sure their children are fully vaccinated. But enough students were not in compliance that the Pennsylvania Department of Health has extended the deadline by two weeks.

"Two weeks depends on the school district. It's eight months from the start date of school," said Department of Health Spokeswoman Christine Cronkright. "In some school districts, that day is coming today; some, it's tomorrow; it depends on when that school district began school."

A report this week from The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) showed that more than 10 percent of those released from hospitals in Pennsylvania are readmitted within 30 days and that means a huge cost for taxpayers. Readmissions for Medicare patients alone accounted for more than a half billion dollars in spending in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Therapists, counselors, prosecuting and defense attorneys, family court judges, medical personnel and law enforcement officials filled the auditorium of the IBEW Local Union No. 5 this morning in the South Side for a conference on child maltreatment.

Janet Squires, Chief of the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said the conference helps guide people to protect children's rights while understanding their profession's responsibilities.

The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) conducted a first-of-its-kind study examining the hospital readmission rate of adults ages 18 and older statewide. The group found that about 13.5% of hospital stays were followed by at least one readmission within 30 days. About a third of those readmissions were the direct result of a complication or infection. But, that doesn't necessarily mean there was a problem with the patient's care. PHC4 Spokesman Gary Tuma said a number of factors could be at play.

Department of Health Practices Emergency Response

Apr 24, 2012

A three-day disaster drill tested Pennsylvania emergency services across the state this weekend. Teams assembled in Lebanon, Clearfield, and Lehigh Counties to practice their response to disaster scenarios.

Joe Schmider, State Director for the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, said participants treated the situations as if they were real, and were not told what they would encounter during exercises.

He said, when actual disasters occur, resources become strained, and practice sessions help them to learn to cope when an emergency presents itself.

Washington & Jefferson College hopes to elevate the debate over America's energy policy with a new index of annual data from the federal government.

The college's Center for Energy Policy and Management will oversee the new Energy Index. CEPM Director Diana Stares said the database will provide lawmakers with unbiased information.

Act 13 is the recently-passed law that regulates oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania. There are many provisions within it, including impact fees for counties, chemical disclosure regulations, and where energy development can take place. But, it's a legislative document and is therefore long and sometimes hard to understand. That's where Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) comes in. The non-profit environmental advocacy group has released a plain-language guide and analysis.

Pennsylvania Seeks Emergency Volunteers

Apr 23, 2012

Volunteer efforts in the wake of natural or manmade disasters are often the piece that brings hope and humanity back to a hurting area.

The state's Department of Health is urging Pennsylvanians to join the network of registered volunteers, SERVPA, during the week set aside by Gov. Tom Corbett as Volunteer Week, now through April 21.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Pittsburgh Friday, praising one of the largest pipeline modernization projects in the nation's history. Hundreds of thousands of pipes run under communities in the U.S., transporting natural gas, but many are very old and some are starting to crumble.

A year ago, Secretary LaHood called upon pipeline operators to take a hard look at their infrastructure and make needed improvements. He says companies such as NiSource, which includes Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, took that call and ran with it.

Food Justice is focusing on bringing about equity in terms of access to healthier foods in all communities. The food justice movement is a fast-growing one, as more attention is being paid to childhood obesity and the higher rates of obesity among minority groups.

"What we know from research is that communities that are primarily African American, as well as Latino, tend to have fewer grocery stores where you can find greater access to a variety of foods and lower-cost foods," said Monica Baskin, associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

A report issued by the RAND Corporation finds that using abandoned mine drainage for hydraulic fracturing gas wells could be employed more frequently in future development, thereby lessening the burden on fresh water supplies. The report, funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, concludes that drainage from closed mines is plentiful, and the technology to use it is feasible.

The Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park is the subject of a new film to be debuted Wednesday night. Undaunted looks at the history of the University of Pittsburgh owned and operated facility, first opened in 1867, and the people that brought it to life. The film goes so far as to call it the true birthplace of aviation and the field of astrophysics.

Monday, April 16, 2012

As men and women return from military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they go through a significant adjustment as they rejoin civilian life. Part of that adjustment is figuring how to communicate their experience at war. This can be especially challenging for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who are trying to build new, romantic relationships.

For Veterans Coming Home Isn't Always Easy

Apr 16, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

Somerset County Latest to Enact Marcellus Impact Fee

Apr 11, 2012

The Somerset County Commission has voted to enact an impact fee on Marcellus drilling operations, though at this point, they're not sure how much money that will mean for the county. At a meeting Tuesday Commissioners John Vatavuk and Joe Betta approved the fee. Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes was absent from the meeting, though Betta said she does support the move.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division announced Tuesday that it has closed its investigation into Highmark's affiliation agreement with West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS). The D.O.J. launched the antitrust investigation in February.

The Allegheny County Board of Health will hold a public meeting from 6:00 to 8:00 PM this evening at the Clairton Municipal Building (551 Ravensburg Blvd.).

Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, chairs the 22-member committee formed in January, 2010 to revise air toxics guidelines that haven't been changed since 1988. He says the last public meeting took place about a year ago in Avalon.

Gene Mutations Linked to Autism Risk

Apr 5, 2012

New studies published in the scientific journal Nature show that genetic mutations in the womb may be the cause of 15% of cases of autism spectrum disorders.

Bernie Devlin, a professor of psychiatry in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, and Kathryn Roeder, a professor of statistics and computational biology at Carnegie Mellon University, worked on the study, which was conducted by researchers from Harvard and Yale and the University of Washington.

Child Abuse Prevention Month Begins In Pennsylvania

Apr 3, 2012

Pennsylvania is marking Child Abuse Prevention Month, which aims to educate those who work with children as well as individuals about how to prevent a child from being abused.

In 2010, there were 24,615 reports of child abuse in Pennsylvania, down from 25,342 in 2009.

This year, the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA) will raise awareness of child abuse by painting three murals with abuse prevention themes.

But Beth Bitler, the alliance's Program Director, says this month is meant to do more than just raise awareness.

Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County is worst in the state for particulate matter air pollution, with 49 air pollution particulate days a year.

Kate Konkle, outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said, "We don't see that in a lot of communities, but you can also think about, 'Do we have clean indoor air and smoking policies in place?' Some issues are tougher to tackle than others as a local community, and it might be a push at the state level or in other ways to make some of these better."

Orthopedic Surgery on the Rise in Pennsylvania

Apr 2, 2012

About one in 200 Pennsylvania residents underwent joint replacement surgery in 2010, according to a new study by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4).

The study presents data collected from surgery centers and hospitals statewide to showcase the changes in orthopedic and spinal operations between 2006 and 2010. 28,090 state residents, age 18 or older, underwent a common spine procedure in 2010. The rate was higher, 1 in ever 222, among people 65 and older.

Mixed Outcomes from Ouster of Highmark CEO

Apr 2, 2012

The firing of Highmark CEO Kenneth Melani may have come at an inopportune time for the health insurer, as it prepares to take over the struggling West Penn Allegheny Health System and wages a contract war with UPMC.

Highmark was dealt a blow when Moody's Investors Services downgraded its credit rating in response to the leadership tumult. However, the co-chair of the Pennsylvania House Insurance Committee doesn't see Melani's dismissal as a major factor in contract negotiations between Highmark and UPMC.

Melani Fired As Highmark CEO

Apr 2, 2012

One of the largest insurance companies in Pennsylvania has fired its chief executive officer a week after he was arrested following a fight with the husband of an employee with whom he was having an affair.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc. announced yesterday that the board of directors had dismissed 58 year old Kenneth Melani who had been placed on unpaid leave March 29 after he was charged with simple assault and defiant trespass.

More than 600 social workers gathered in Harrisburg to call for the passage of Senate Bill 922, which would provide state licenses for social workers with bachelor's degrees.

SB 922 would create "practice protection," ensuring licensed professionals meet certain criteria.

Pennsylvania State Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna County), a co-sponsor of the bill, said 43 states have "practice protection" legislation, while 34 issue licenses to social workers with a bachelor's degree.

First-term Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O'Connor has announced a bill that will set up a new Pittsburgh HIV/AIDS commission. The overall goal is to bring together various entities and address gaps that he says exist in the current system. One in four of those living with HIV/AIDS in the city are not being treated.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with engineers at MIT have demonstrated that a substance known as BZ gel can sense and respond to stimuli, similar to human skin.

When placed in an environment with certain agents, the gel, with a chemically-attached catalyst, will begin to pulse as it expands and contracts. Few materials can mimic this autonomous oscillation. The gel can, with the potential to restart pulses by sensing touch.

Provision in Marcellus Shale Bill Prompts Controversy

Mar 30, 2012

Public health advocates and some environmental groups are crying foul over a provision in Act 13. The groups claim the wording in the law, which regulates shale drilling, amounts to a gag order for doctors when it comes to chemicals that may make people sick, but industry advocates say that's not the case.

Non-disclosure

Zero Waste Pittsburgh Expands Certification Efforts

Mar 29, 2012

Zero Waste Pittsburgh is introducing ZIP certification for businesses and institutions that set and achieve greater waste reduction goals.

Zero Waste Pittsburgh is a project of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, and offers waste program evaluations, studies, technical assistance, and employee training. Since 2007, Zero Waste Pittsburgh has certified events such as the Annual Strawberry Festival, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the 2011 Blues Festival.

57,000 People Could Be Without Heat & Electricity

Mar 28, 2012

In a few days, a winter ban will end that's kept power companies from shutting off the heat and electricity for low-income families that haven't paid their bills.

But a legal aid non-profit is asking utilities companies to show some clemency to Pennsylvanians who need help paying those bills.

Michael Froehlich, a lawyer with the Community Legal Services based in Philadelphia, said it's an issue because more than 57,000 applications for heating assistance are still pending.

Pennsylvania Democrats Make Hay Over Ultrasound Bill

Mar 27, 2012

A state House measure that would require women to get an ultrasound before they undergo an abortion is on hold due to concerns voiced by medical groups but that has not stopped opponents from striking back against the bill.

Protesters gathered at the Capitol Monday to rally against the bill. Several political candidates were in the crowd.

"The ultrasound bill of course wouldn't affect me… I'm too old to have children," said Harriet Ellenberger, a Democrat running for a House seat in Westmoreland County. "I'm protesting the bill on behalf of younger women," she said.

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