Are hospitals more dangerous over the holidays?

Hospital errors may increase around the holidaysThe holiday season should be a time for relaxation, but for people in the hospital – or their families and friends – the period can be fraught with chaos, one author claims.

Martine Ehrenclou, who wrote Critical Conditions: The Essential Hospital Guide to Get Your Loved One Out Alive, warns that medical errors can increase in late December and early January.

She places the blame on increased nurse-to-patient ratios, the presence of temporary staff and doctors who have headed out of town.

In order to help prevent disasters, Ehrenclou suggests that each patient request that a friend or family member keep a written record of the names of each healthcare professional involved, as well as diagnosis and treatment information.

She recommends that patients specifically request that physicians and nurses wash their hands and use gloves before touching them, in order to help prevent MRSA and other hospital-acquired infections.

Additionally, before any surgery is carried out, people should make sure that the surgeon marks the particular site where the operation takes place, to be confirmed with the patient’s family.

Statistics cited by the FDA indicate that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die each year from medical errors in hospitals.

Request for taxpayers to fund Blagojevich defense

Who should pay for Blago's defense?As the hearings regarding the impeachment of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich continue, the state attorney general has denied a request that state taxpayers fund his defense.

Blagojevich’s attorney, Edward Genson, sent a letter to Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan this week, citing a state law that mandates the attorney general to represent state officials in court, the Associated Press reports.

However, because Madigan had tried to get Blagojevich removed from office she had a conflict of interest and the state should therefore pay for the governor’s lawyer of choice, Genson claimed.

However, Madigan chief of staff Ann Spillane responded in a letter by arguing that the impeachment proceedings are not being held "in court" and therefore the state of Illinois should not have to foot the bill.

She also suggested that because the governor is accused of "corruptly betraying the public trust for personal and financial gain," it did not make sense that taxpayers should pay.

It emerged last week that Blagojevich had been arrested by FBI agents for allegedly trying to sell the senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama.

Today, lawmakers are expected to hear testimony about past investigations of the governor that found evidence of improper contracts, incomplete records and careless use of tax money, according to the AP.

New privacy guidelines for electronic health records

Electronic health records raise privacy questionsAs the government moves toward the adoption of electronic health records, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced new privacy guidelines for the treatment of these records.

The eight principles announced by the HHS this week cover patient access, record correction, transparency, patient choice, limitations regarding the records, data integrity, safeguards and accountability.

Announcing the guidelines, HHS secretary Mike Leavitt stressed the importance of the individual having control over their data and not being forced to accept "privacy risks."

"Consumers need an easy-to-read, standard notice about how their personal health information is protected, confidence that those who misuse information will be held accountable and the ability to choose the degree to which they want to participate in information sharing," he explained.

During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama promoted the use of electronic health records as having the potential to reduce costs, as well as increasing efficiency and accuracy.

Some groups, such as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, have raised concerns about the possibility that such records could be misused by insurance companies, lawyers, advertisers and others if they gained access.

FDA sticks to view that BPA is safe

BPA is in plastic packagingThe Food and Drug Administration has repeated its opinion that the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is safe, but also says it will conduct further tests and keep analyzing studies.

BPA has made headlines in recent months, as studies have linked the ingredient, found in some plastic packaging and baby bottles, with a number of health problems – such as heart disease, cancer, hyperactivity and fertility.

However, the FDA has said that it has not found sufficient evidence of the chemical’s harm to prohibit it.

"At this moment, with all information in front of us, we do not believe we have the data on which we could base a regulatory ban," said Laura Tarantino, chief of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.

At the same time, the agency said it would keep studying the effects of BPA on humans, particularly infants and children.

Mike Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal that the time to act is now, saying that "while the FDA continues to delay action, infants and women of childbearing age are being exposed" to this "highly potent chemical."

Does the government operate Ponzi schemes?

Look into the future...will your investment be returned?Ponzi schemes – in which existing investors are paid with new investors’ money – have been in the news a lot lately, with the revelation of Bernard Madoff’s fraudulent investment fund sending ripples across the world.

Writing in Time magazine’s Curious Capitalist blog, Justin Fox makes the argument that the government also operates a program that functions on a similar model: Social Security.

"Today’s taxpayers contribute money that is funneled to today’s Social Security recipients – and hope that tomorrow’s taxpayers will put in enough money to fund their retirements," he writes.

He also suggests that the idea of government finance operates on such a principle as well. When people purchase Treasury securities and municipal bonds, they assume that there will be future investors and taxpayers who will support the system, allowing them to profit.

However, Fox finally points out that there is an important difference between Social Security and Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

The former does not make any attempt to disguise how it works, while the latter involved fraudulent activities in which investors were kept in the dark about where their money was going – or coming from.

Ponzi schemes are named for New England resident Charles Ponzi, who convinced thousands of people to invest money in postage stamp speculation in the 1920s.

Yahoo will hold user data for no longer than 90 days

Yahoo is aiming to lead the way in regard to certain privacy standardsYahoo is attempting to set the industry standard regarding how it manages user data by cutting the amount of time that it keeps information on individuals’ searches.

Under the new rules, the search engine giant announced that it will retain personal data for no longer than 90 days except in cases of "fraud, security or legal obligations." In those cases, it will be kept for up to six months.

Previously, Yahoo stored query information for 13 months before anonymizing it so that it cannot be traced back to an individual. Google holds this type of data for nine months and Microsoft for 18 months.

In addition to search data, Yahoo said it would purge information related to page views, page clicks, ad views and ad clicks.

"Responsible use of data is critical to establishing and maintaining user trust," explained vice president of Yahoo Anne Toth, according to AFP.

Internet search engines generally use such data to target advertisements toward what seem to be the searcher’s interests. But some have raised concerns about the potential for abuse with such data.

Property value losses set to total $2 trillion

Many people owe more on their house than it is worthBy the end of this year, American homeowners could be facing a collective loss of $2 trillion on their properties’ value, new figures reveal.

Data reported by found that the value of U.S. homes declined by 8.4 percent annually during the first three quarters of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007.

The situation may be especially bad for the 11.7 million families who are considered to be "underwater" on their mortgage. This means they owe more on their home loan than their house is currently worth.

Zillow’s Stan Humphries said that the fourth quarter of the year is likely to bring even more difficult situations for homeowners, as other factors such as job losses wreak havoc on households’ financial stability.

"This year marked the acceleration of the market correction, and is likely to end with the eighth consecutive quarter of declines in home values," he commented.

The news comes after members of the House Oversight Committee took the CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to task for ignoring economic warning signs and making "irresponsible investments" that have ended up costing taxpayers "hundreds of billions of dollars."

Concerns raised about online criminal records

You can see criminal records at the click of a mouseAt first, the idea of being able to access a person’s criminal record dating back several years may seem convenient – but what if there are errors?

That is just one of the privacy and civil liberties concerns that have been raised by groups and individuals, as more states move to introduce searchable online criminal records databases, the Associated Press reports.

These systems make delving into someone’s past easier than ever before. For example, Vermont’s system requires that you supply a person’s name, date of birth and pay a $20 fee.

But the records that are maintained online are not as comprehensive as those kept at the courthouse, prompting Allen Gilbert of the ACLU to argue that people accessing the database do not receive a full picture.

"There might be something about the conviction that if you looked at the court record, you’d better understand about what happened and what’s behind the conviction," he told the news provider.

Another concern is that of mistaken identity. Michigan warns users of its system that because it is based on name, it is not foolproof.

A recent story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram drew attention to massive gaps in the state’s online criminal records database, which criminal justice professor Mike Vaughn attributed to human error.


The hidden estrogen in moisturizers

Estrogen may be found in certain beauty productsDoes your daily skincare routine involve the application of a product containing estrogen?

Many women may not know if they are smoothing on estrogen ingredients, according to new research presented at a breast cancer symposium in San Antonio, Reuters reports.

Speaking at the conference, Dr. Adrienne Olson of Breastlink warned women who suffer from estrogen-receptive positive breast cancer to steer clear of moisturizers containing estrogen – and suggested that they may be dangerous for other women as well.

She and her team tested 16 moisturizers that are widely available in the U.S. and found that although none of the products mentioned estrogen content, six of them contained estrone or estriol.

Olson said that women whose breast cancer is driven by estrogen may be absorbing more of the hormone than they think.

In fact, she explained that the body absorbs more estrogen when it is applied to the skin than it does when it is taken orally.

Olson also raised the concern that women who do not have breast cancer may be raising their risk of the disease by exposing themselves to these moisturizers over the long term.

Previously, some scientists have drawn attention to the inclusion of parabens – preservatives that can mimic estrogen – in beauty products, suggesting that there may be a link with breast cancer.

Does today’s stock market offer short-term opportunities?

Should you buy, sell or hold steady?Although the massive swings of the stock market are not for everyone, some experts have suggested that short-term gains can be made if investors follow a savvy strategy – particularly as so many stocks are selling at record-low prices.

Financial adviser Shawn Rubin told the Wall Street Journal that people may want to follow a "horseshoes and hand grenades" method of playing the market.

This involves ignoring the question of whether the stock market has bottomed out or reached a definite peak and simply rebalancing their portfolio more frequently, depending on how the market swings.

As an example, he suggested that an investor who maintains between 20 percent and 40 percent of their portfolio in stocks could subtly boost their buying during low periods, then readjust and "take a little of the stock position off" if the market rises by 20 percent.

If it jumps further, investors simply take "a little more off," Rubin explained.

Brett Arendt of the Wall Street Journal has advised people to take the bear market as an opportunity to rebalance the stocks they hold, since low prices increase the options for broadening a portfolio.

Government expands DNA collection

Anyone who is arrested for a federal crime will have to give DNAPrivacy and civil liberties groups have raised concern over new parameters that expand the number of people whose DNA can be collected by the government.

Under new Justice Department rules set to take effect on January 9th, law enforcement officials will be able to take DNA samples from all non-U.S. citizens who have been detained, as well as anyone who has been arrested for a federal crime.

The announcement comes after the European Court of Human rights unanimously struck down a similar policy in the UK, in which DNA was collected from all criminal suspects.

Currently, the government is only able to collect DNA from those who have actually been convicted of federal crimes – but the new rules allow agents to take it at the point of arrest instead.

Commenting on the new law, Kevin Johnson of Davis Law School told the LA Times that it is "unfair on so many levels it’s hard to describe."

"You can make the argument that we should take the DNA of the entire population because if we did it could help us solve crimes. But we’ve made this decision that as a society … the freedoms that we stand for are more important," he said.

Senator investigates Wyeth over ghostwritten research articles

Ghostwriting has plagued the pharmaceutical sector in the pastPharmaceutical company Wyeth paid for favorable medical journal articles to be written about its hormone therapy products, according to claims by a U.S. senator.

In a letter to Wyeth, Senator Charles Grassley questioned whether the company had hired medical communications company DesignWrite to create materials about its products and then find scientists who would sign on as authors.

Grassley suggested that if such articles are published – and the amount of involvement the authors had in the articles is not made clear – the results could harm patients, doctors and taxpayers alike.

"Any attempt to manipulate the scientific literature, that can in turn mislead doctors to prescribe drugs that may not work and/or cause harm to their patients, is very troubling," he wrote.

Wyeth is currently dealing with around 8,700 legal claims from women who took their hormone replacement products, including Prempro.

Sales of the drug plummeted after a 2002 study, known as the Women’s Health Initiative, began linking hormone therapy with breast cancer.

The World Association of Medical Editors told the New York Times that not mentioning the role of a ghostwriter in medical literature is "dishonest and unacceptable."

Verizon admits to invading Obama’s privacy

Privacy breach affects ObamaEmployees of Verizon Wireless accessed the cell phone records of President-elect Barack Obama without permission, the company has admitted.

In a statement released on Thursday, the telecommunications firm said that a number of staff members had gained access to and viewed Obama’s billing account, which indicates which numbers he has called and received calls from.

The phone in question has not been active for months and is also a flip-phone style – which means that it does not contain emails or similar data that a smart-phone may hold.

"All employees who have accessed the account – whether authorized or not – have been put on immediate leave, with pay," Verizon stated.

The company is also conducting an investigation into whether any information has been shared with anyone outside its employees, according to CNN.

This is not the only recent incident in which the privacy of a high-profile politician was violated.

In September, the email account of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was hacked. The suspect is 20-year-old David Kernell, the son of a Democratic Tennessee lawmaker.

NYPD and Justice Dept clash over surveillance

NYPD wants the Justice Dept to work fasterThe New York Police Department has run into problems while trying to seek faster surveillance approval for investigating terror suspects.

According to correspondence obtained by the Associated Press, the NYPD has asked for greater latitude for spying on suspects, but has run into civil liberties conflicts with the Justice Department.

In a letter to NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, Attorney General Michael Mukasey suggested that the request was not within the bounds of the law.

"In effect, what you ask is that we disregard FISA’s legal requirements, which are rooted in the Constitution," he wrote, according to the AP.

"Not only would your approach violate the law, it would also in short order make New York City and the rest of the country less safe."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) lays out the procedures for obtaining authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of terrorism suspects.

Kelly has complained that the Justice Department’s requirements for demonstrating probable cause are too cumbersome to effectively fight terrorism.

He said that "in situations short of unambiguous emergency," the system moved too slowly, leaving the city at risk of an attack.

Look to vitamin D for heart health, study says

Vitamin D is good for the heartAs the winter closes in and hours of sunshine grow less common, people who are concerned with their health may want to consider taking supplements that contain vitamin D.

One reason that people may be concerned about their levels of vitamin D is that many studies have recently linked a deficiency in the vitamin to cardiovascular problems.

A new review in the journal Circulation reveals that a body of research has connected a lack of vitamin D to a number of different heart-related health conditions.

Heart disease patients who did not have adequate levels of the sunshine vitamin were found to be 30 to 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with satisfactory levels, the scientists.

"Chronic vitamin D deficiency may be a culprit in heart disease, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome," commented study author Sue Penckofer of the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and Loyola University.

She called for doctors to include a measurement of vitamin D levels as part of a regular checkup of at-risk patients.

According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin D has been found to be beneficial for a number of health conditions, including muscle pain and osteoporosis.

The benefits of a low-risk investment mix

Would you risk your wealth?Although conventional wisdom advises that retirement planners invest 80 percent of their money in stocks and 20 percent in bonds, recent economic events have made some question the wisdom of this plan.

Now, an article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that a lower-risk portfolio that opts for a 50-50 mix of stocks and bonds may actually be nearly as effective for building up a nest egg – and is safer than other options.

Jonathan Burton of writes that although stocks outperform bonds, people who want to minimize losses and reduce their stress level may want to invest more in bonds.

He admits that this investing strategy will probably not earn as much as a high-risk mix, but he contends that the difference "isn’t that substantial" and the benefits of fairly predictable growth with milder drops could be worth it.

"If your goal is to be very confident about having a certain amount of money at a point in time, lower-risk portfolios are actually a cheaper way to get there than a higher-risk portfolio," Christopher Jones of Financial Engines is quoted as saying.

Last month was an especially volatile time for the U.S. stock market, with uncertainty about economic recovery leading to huge jumps and drops within a very short period of time.

Internet subscribers sue over privacy

Is your privacy safe online?A company that marketed web surveillance technology and six of its client companies are being sued by a group of customers who claim the practice violated privacy laws.

Fifteen people filed a lawsuit last week against NebuAd and six internet service providers. The company had developed a product which tracked users’ online habits in detail.

The data was used to created advertisements that targeted particular individuals as they browsed various web pages.

This practice violates both state and federal privacy laws, according to those that brought the suit. They say that under anti-wiretapping statutes, NebuAd should have notified them of their practice and received consent.

"Like a vacuum cleaner, everything passing through the pipe of the consumers’ Internet connection was sucked up, copied and forwarded," the lawsuit stated, according to the Associated Press.

The customers are asking for more than $5 million in damages and have requested that their suit be used as a class action representing others who were affected.

In September, representatives from ISPs appeared before Congress to recommend that the industry could adequately protect customer privacy through self-regulation.

Financial crisis worries retirees

Will you still have a nest egg?The financial events of the past year or so have not made it easy for many people to sleep easily, but retirees may be among the worst-hit groups.

A Reuters report explores the way that millions of middle-class and upper-income retirees are facing huge losses in their savings because they invested in stocks rather than more secure investments.

Just a few years ago, these same people may have been making significant profits from this decision – but when the stock market began its downward spiral, not everyone was able to protect themselves.

Some blame the situation on the way that retirement accounts work in the U.S. Instead of a pension system, most people receive income from a 401(k) or other type of investment-base account.

"Late boomers will fare far worse than their parents and grandparents in terms of replacing their income in retirement, mainly because of the erosion in the employer pension system," Teresa Ghilarducci of New York’s New School for Social Research told the news provider.

According to AARP research, people who are nearing retirement no longer expect to be able to live as well as they once did, with 69 percent of workers aged 45 or older saying they plan to spend less in their golden years.

FDA reverses stance on mercury’s risks

The FDA has changed its opinion on mercury risksWomen of childbearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and children would no longer be advised to limit their fish consumption due to mercury risks, under new draft proposals by the FDA.

The decision to reverse a 2004 joint advisory by the FDA and environmental protection agency has angered some at the EPA, the Washington Post reports.

Internal memos obtained by the news provider show that EPA scientists believe the new recommendations are "scientifically flawed and inadequate" and lacking in "scientific rigor."

Four years, ago the two agencies said they had determined that the high mercury levels present in fish such as swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel posed a risk to younger women and children.

They recommended that these groups avoid those fish altogether, as well as eating no more than 12 oz of other low-mercury fish per week.

Studies have suggested that mercury can interfere with the neurological development of babies and fetuses, as well as increasing an adult’s risk of heart disease.

Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group said the FDA’s proposal is "a commentary on how low the FDA has sunk as an agency," adding that it has become "nothing more than a patsy for polluters."

Will taxpayers be forced to give more money to AIG?

Another bailout in the future for AIG?The $85 billion bailout of AIG in September may have frustrated many taxpayers, but the government insisted that the move was necessary to prevent further economic turmoil.

Now, a new article in Reuters suggests that taxpayers’ role in funding the insurance giant may not be over, as the company’s recent behavior has not been in line with what it needs to do to survive.

According to the news provider, AIG has been aggressively cutting its rates to win business, even though experts agree that prices should be increased in order to ensure they are commensurate with risk.

Former CEO of AIG Maurice Greenberg told Reuters that the company is still playing dangerously.

"Cutting rates at a time when rates should be strengthening is a quick way to going out of business," he explained.

Meanwhile, others in the industry, such as Liberty Mutual CEO Edmund Kelly, have accused AIG of doing "some very stupid things in the market" that could eventually have even more of a destabilizing effect.

The article even suggested that if AIG’s tactics result in losses, the government may be forced to pledge further taxpayer funds to rescue the firm again.

AIG’s problems originated with its insurance of risky debts, such as mortgage-backed securities, against default.

Ron Paul criticizes bailouts, Patriot Act

Capitol Hill is mismanaging funds, Paul saysThe U.S. government is headed in "the wrong direction" by giving bailout money to various groups who have asked for it, according to Representative Ron Paul.

Speaking to Newsmax, the former presidential candidate said that he opposes bailouts from both an economic and philosophical standpoint.

"I find it to be bad economics. I find it bad morally to transfer wealth from one group of people to another no matter what kind of problems they have," he told the news provider.

The politician has been an outspoken advocate for a self-correcting market, with minimal government interference.

In the interview, Paul also spoke out in favor of a gold-backed currency, which would prevent the Fed from creating money "out of thin air" with nothing to support it, a measure he claimed may destroy the dollar.

Paul’s opposition to the Patriot Act has also been widely reported – and it shows no signs of softening.

He told Newsmax that far from protecting Americans, "all it’s done is regulate people…the people are less free, but the fact that we haven’t had an attack is probably just a coincidence."

More people choosing alternative medicine

Alternative therapies are going mainstreamNew statistics from a government agency reveal that Americans’ use of alternative medicine – including natural supplements – is rising.

Additionally, the study by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine looked at children’s use of natural therapies and found that 12 percent of kids have used such treatments over the past 12 months.

Among adults, nearly four in ten said they had used complementary and alternative medicines in the previous year.

Some of the most popular treatments included nutritional supplements such as fish oil/omega 3, glucosamine, Echinacea, flaxseed oil and ginseng.

Adults tended to use natural products to treat back pain, neck pain, joint stiffness and arthritis. Children used alternative remedies for conditions such as colds, anxiety and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Commenting on the findings, the Los Angeles Times suggested that alternative medicines may be most popular in areas "where mainstream medicine has not had much success."

"These statistics confirm that CAM practices are a frequently used component of Americans’ health care regimens," commented Dr. Josephine P. Briggs of the NCCAM.

IRS will be closely monitoring tax returns

Be careful when filling out your tax returns this yearWhen you are filling out your 2008 taxes, you may want to take extra care to make sure everything is accurate – because the IRS has said it will be scrutinizing returns even more carefully than in years past.

The reason behind the crackdown is the anticipated $408 billion federal budget deficit that the country will face in early 2009.

IRS commissioner Doug Shulman recently spoke to tax lawyers in Washington, warning that the service will be looking at deductions and withholdings, as well as remaining "vigilant to ensure that wealthy individuals don’t use offshore accounts to avoid paying their U.S. taxes," according to Blomberg.

"Because of a huge deficit and major enforcement initiatives by the IRS, an inaccurate return will have a better chance of being picked up than in prior years," lawyer Ian Comisky told the news provider.

This year, the IRS may expect to face challenges increasing the amount of tax it collects, due to the large number of workers who have lost their jobs.

In addition, tax brackets have been increased so that people will be able to claim higher exemptions and standard deductions.