Health Highlights: Nov. 24, 2008

Nov. 25 -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Medicaid Paying for Unapproved Drugs: Report

From 2004 to 2007, Medicaid paid nearly $198 million for prescriptions of more than 100 unapproved medications linked to dozens of deaths, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data.

There's no data available for 2008, but the unapproved drugs are still being sold. Many of the drugs are used to treat common conditions such as colds and pain and date back decades, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implemented stricter drug review policies, the AP said.

Unapproved prescription drugs account for about two percent (72 million) of all prescriptions filled by pharmacies in the United States, according to the FDA. Private insurance plans also pay for these drugs, the AP reported.

The FDA is trying to remove these unapproved drugs from the market, but conflicting federal laws permit Medicaid to pay for the drugs. Medicaid officials said they need help from Congress to resolve the problem, the news service said.

"I think this is something we ought to look at very hard, and we ought to fix it," Medicaid chief Herb Kuhn told the AP. "It raises a whole set of questions, not only in terms of safety, but in the efficiency of the program -- to make sure we are getting the right set of services for beneficiaries."

Federal payments for questionable medications are a concern when health-care costs are rising and about 46 million Americans are uninsured. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the Health and Human Services inspector general to investigate the situation, the AP said.

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Infrared Light May Hold Clue to 'Clarifying' Cochlear Implants

The cochlear implant, considered a miracle for its ability to give hearing to many deaf people, may be improved by the use of infrared light, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

Northwestern University scientists discovered that shining infrared light directly on the neurons in the inner ears of deaf guinea pigs helped make the translators of sound -- called frequency maps -- as clear as those in animals with normal hearing.

One of the difficulties with cochlear implants has been that human recipients have "frequency maps" that make it difficult to discern differences in tonal quality and background noises, and this can limit music appreciation and communicating in public places, the magazine reported.

Dr. Claus-Peter Richter, who headed the research team and presented its findings at a conference in Australia earlier this month, told New Scientist that there are a couple of challenges ahead.

The first is to evaluate the effect of the heat accompanying the light in the infrared process. Richter said his group is already taking a look at what the long-term effects may be from heating the neurons in the inner ear.

And the second project, he said, is to make fiber optics and lasers to target light in the inner ear.

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Getting Bad News May Be Better Than Not Knowing at All

No news is good news, right?

Not necessarily, University of Toronto researchers found, according to The New York Times.

In fact, it's better to get bad news than no news at all, the newspaper reported, because not knowing something may increase anxiety and stress.

The Canadian researchers hooked up 41 men and women to electrode caps and asked them to perform tasks, while their neural activity was monitored, the Times reported. The highest neuron response was when the computer feedback issued a question mark instead of a plus sign (job well done) or a minus sign (needs improvement). The question mark gave no indication of what was required next.

This brain activity indicated that being uncertain about an outcome among people who are neurotic is worse than actually receiving bad news. "Basically the motto of the highly neurotic person is, 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don't,' " Jacob Hirsch, the study's lead author, told the Times.