Health care is constantly changing — from new technologies and methods used by doctors, to legislation and policies that shift the entire landscape of medicine and health insurance. Within Highmark Health’s culture of innovation, new ideas are constantly being created, reviewed, discussed and implemented. With that in mind, this Links to the Future series will highlight some of the many fascinating articles and studies we come across, with a focus on the research, technologies and practices that will change and save lives in the near and distant future.


Links to the Future

Research Suggests More Carefully Targeted Aortic Screenings: Screenings save lives, but, as reported in a previous Links to the Future segment on prostate cancer screenings, there is also such a thing as “too many screenings.” A recent study touched both sides of that equation. Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the study suggests that current practices of screening all men at age 65 for abdominal aortic aneurysm — a potentially deadly bulging of the aorta — may be “too many screenings.” The study found that the highest risk of death from abdominal aortic aneurysms doesn’t occur until age 75 or older. On the other hand, factors like smoking can greatly increase the risk of this condition at an earlier age. Bottom line: The study says that screening all male smokers at age 65, but waiting to screen other men until 75, could prevent almost four times the number of related deaths while simultaneously reducing the total number of scans by 20 percent — which also helps to control overall health care costs.

doctor giving woman a flu shotA “Universal” Flu Shot: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over age 6 get a seasonal flu vaccine. Since there are multiple strains of the virus and it is constantly mutating, each year scientists must develop vaccines to fight off the version or versions of the flu expected to be active that season. A better solution would be a “universal” vaccine that would be effective no matter which strains or mutations showed up for flu season — and research in two peer-reviewed journals, Science Express and Nature Medicine, may be a big step toward developing one. Preliminary research by two independent teams produced promising results in animals by targeting a “stem” of the flu virus structure that most strains have in common and which is less subject to change. Additional lab and animal research is likely before moving on to human trials.

Smart Pen Aids Dementia Testing: For years, the “clock drawing test” has been a primary tool used by clinicians to diagnose patients for dementia or cognitive impairment. However, interpreting patient drawings can be time-consuming and subjective. Now, a collaborative of researchers at MIT and other institutions across the U.S. have developed the Anoto Live Pen — a pen with a built-in camera that analyzes the pen’s position 80 times per second, looking for hesitations and other movements that might indicate that the drawer has a cognitive impairment. Analyzing data from over 2,600 tests conducted over nine years, the team found their pen led to far more accurate diagnoses than the old-school approach.

New Protein Is a Superhero in Fighting Cancercaped superhero with multiplication sign: In the ongoing search for more effective treatments to combat cancer, researchers at Imperial College London may have discovered an exceptionally powerful ally that already exists in our bodies: a previously unknown protein, dubbed the lymphocyte expansion molecule (LEM). When elevated, LEM — initially observed in mice, but present in the human body as well — seems to provide a massive energy boost that allows the body to produce far more cancer-fighting T cells (ten times more in the mice). This opens up the possibility of developing a gene therapy whereby T cells of cancer patients could be enhanced with LEM and then injected back into the body. Such a therapy might eventually replace harsh chemotherapies, enabling the body itself to fight the disease, rather than toxic drugs. The group working on this gene therapy hopes to begin human trials in three years.

Expanding Private Exchanges May Be Future of Health Benefits: Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) spurred the rise of public health plan exchanges like healthcare.gov, which allow consumers to “shop” for health insurance online. A less well-known trend is the rapid growth and expanding importance of private health exchanges. Owned and operated by private sector health insurance companies like Highmark Inc., brokers or consulting firms, private exchanges have become especially popular for employers who use a “defined contribution” approach to providing health plan benefits. Essentially, the employer sets aside a certain amount of money for an employee to use for health plan benefits, but then the employee shops on the private exchange their employer has contracted with to find the plan that suits their needs. A Kaiser Family Foundation Report revealed that 20 to 33 percent of employers plan to adopt private exchange structures in the next three to five years, and experts predict that most health insurers will offer a single-insurer private exchange by the end of 2016. Employers meet their ACA compliance requirements while capping costs, and employees get more options — so you can see why some believe that private exchanges are the future of health plan benefits.