Forge Wednesday Roundup - October 9, 2019

October 9, 2019

In today’s Roundup: libraries ditching late fees; predictive typing poses questions for self-expression; standards proposed for published reports of AI research; dengue invades Nepal; alarming uptick in suicide by poisoning; rural Kansas hospital dodges closure to keep delivering critical services; physician burnout is real, but better data are needed to understand its effects; leaving astrophysics for shopping algorithms; much more:

AI, Statistics & Data Science
Stary night sky
Image credit: David Monje via Unsplash
  • “Until now I’d always finished my thought by typing the sentence to a full stop, as though I were defending humanity’s exclusive right to writing, an ability unique to our species. I will gladly let Google predict the fastest route from Brooklyn to Boston, but if I allowed its algorithms to navigate to the end of my sentences how long would it be before the machine started thinking for me?” In an interactive long-form feature for the New Yorker (one that includes AI-predicted text at the conclusion of every section), John Seabrook muses on the implications of Google’s Smart Compose function and other artificial intelligence-enabled predictive text.
  • “It’s sort of like uncovering a different universe. The universe of human beings.” Wired’s Arielle Pardes quotes astrophysicist Sudeep Das in a profile of astrophysicists who, like Das, abandoned academic science to apply their knowledge of Poincaré spaces in refining consumer-preference algorithms for companies such as Netflix and Stitch Fix.
  • “As AI enters medical practice, physicians need to know how law will assign liability for injuries that arise from interaction between algorithms and practitioners. These issues are likely to arise sooner rather than later.” In a viewpoint for JAMA, Michigan Law’s Nicholson Price and Harvard’s Sara Gerke and Glenn Cohen discuss the legal boundaries for physicians who employ medical artificial intelligence applications and the various ways they could be held liable for malpractice.
  • “The issue is that we think when data has been anonymized it’s safe. Organizations and companies tell us it’s safe, and this proves it is not.” MIT Technology Review’s Charlotte Jee reports on a new Nature Communications study in which European researchers reveal how easy it is to redetect and identify individuals from an anonymized data set using a simple machine learning model and provide a simple demographic test that anyone can take to demonstrate their findings.
  • A recent editorial in Nature Medicine lays out a new set of guidelines for the submission of clinical research, that according to the journal are in alignment with those from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), with a sharp focus on quality and transparency. In a similar comment for Nature, the CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) and SPIRIT (Standard Protocol Items: Recommendations for Interventional Trials) Steering Groups call for more robust reporting guidelines for AI and machine learning medical interventions and propose two AI-centric extensions to the preexisting CONSORT and SPIRIT statements, to be released in 2020.

Basic Science, Clinical Research & Public Health
  • The New York TimesTara Parker-Pope and Anahad O’Connor report on additional controversy emerging from the recent widely publicized study evaluating the health effects of eating red meat – in this case, undisclosed funding relationships between the study’s lead author and the food industry (although not specifically connected to the study in question).
  • “The reality of California’s homelessness crisis is that it has a bodycount. Life expectancy for those who are living outside is about 30 years shorter than those who are housed. The median age of death outside is about 52.” At CalMatters, Matt Tinoco reports on how some physicians and hospital systems in California are trying to alter the trajectory of poor health outcomes for homeless people in the state around through the delivery of “street medicine” with the help of local public health departments and homeless service organizations. 
  • “People are afraid.” Science News’ Gloria Dickie reports that the high-altitude Himalayan nation of Nepal is in the grips of its first devastating dengue outbreak, with 6 deaths and at least 9,000 cases of dengue reported in 65 different districts since August. Climate change is being eyed as a possible culprit in the outbreak, as hitherto cool regions warm enough to make them hospitable to dengue-carrying mosquitoes.  
  • “It’s not that life has spent a billion years bumbling around not realizing that all that was needed was some extra vitamin E and N-acetylcysteine. Things are more complicated. They generally are.” Chemist Derek Lowe, in his In the Pipeline blog at Science Translational Medicine, gives his two cents on the confusion surrounding the therapeutic value and effectiveness of antioxidants in light of a new multicenter study by French researchers that found an antioxidant therapy had carcinogenic effects on the lungs of aged mice.
  • “Most of the time when you add time between an intense suicidal crisis and an access to means, you’re going to show a reduction in suicidal behavior.” Vox’s Brian Resnick quotes Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s suicide prevention coordinator, John Ackerman and his new study published in Clinical Toxicology, which explores a concerning increase in suicide among girls and young women through self-poisoning using over-the-counter medications such as generic versions of painkillers such as Tylenol or Advil. The co-author of the study also calls for a more robust mental health workforce both at home and beyond in helping young people deal with pressing mental health issues. 
  • A new systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by Tawfik and colleagues examines the effects of healthcare provider burnout on the quality of patient care, showing a negative relationship between the two, with frequent healthcare provider burnout leading to poor-quality care in published literature. However, the authors also note that shortcomings in the designs deployed in previous studies make it difficult to be confident of the true effect size of the reported relationships.  (H/T@EricTopol).
  • Kansas City public radio KCUR 89.3’s Dan Margolies reports on how Hillsboro Community Hospital in rural Kansas managed to defy the odds and avoid closure after going through several ownerships and a bankruptcy crisis, all with the help of a bankruptcy trustee, invested and determined staff and “an outpouring of support” from the small farming community of local residents. 
  • “Donating plasma too frequently can hurt a donor’s immune system. A donor should be screened every four months under [U.S. FDA] guidelines. Selling plasma has been banned in Mexico since 1987. But in the United States, donors are still allowed to give plasma up to 104 times a year, far more than in most other countries.” ProPublica’s Dara Lind and ARD German TV’s Stefanie Dodt and Jan Lukas Strozyk jointly report on the United States allowing for-profit international pharmaceutical companies to “lure” Mexicans across the U.S. border with social media and online advertisements promising money in exchange for donated blood.
  • In a JAMA Internal Medicine original investigation, Canadian researchers examine whether providing important prescription drugs at no charge to outpatients who are unable to afford them has a positive effect on adherence. The researchers found that access to free medicines increased overall adherence to prescribed treatments, but found that some disease-specific health outcomes, such as diabetes control and lowering of cholesterol levels, did not appear to be affected by access to free medications.
  • “Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially-challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt.” Citylab’s Linda Poon quotes Mayor Lori Lightfoot while reporting on the Chicago Public Library becoming the latest - and largest – municipal public library to abandon the practice of charging late fees for unreturned books. Starting this month, Chicago’s public library system will erase all outstanding fees for its more than 343,000 card holders with the goal of expanding library access for low-income families.
  • Home is the most common place of death for patients with heart disease, reversing a historical trend which saw the majority of people with heart disease dying in hospitals. This was a key finding from a paper published by researchers from Duke and Harvard published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The authors found that racial and ethnic minorities were less likely to be able to die at home, opening the door for future research to determine whether this difference is because of cultural or personal preferences or due to lack of needed resources and support (H/T @haiderwarraich).  
  • “Vape pens can deliver greater doses of nicotine because they use nicotine salts, which are smoother to inhale. Add in tempting flavors like “I love cookies” and “Unicorn milk,” and tobacco’s harsh flavor is almost completely obscured, making it easier to use the devices frequently and to get addicted faster.” Wired’s Sara Harrison reports on the highly addictive nature of e-cigarettes and why they can be harder to quit than cigarettes. Harrison also plumbs the gap in research needed to develop appropriate guidelines to help tobacco control programs assist addicted vapers in weaning themselves from nicotine.
  • “People who only eat “clean” foods miss critical nutrients from the foods they cut out or don't consume enough calories. It could become a health hazard and ultimately, it can be fatal.” NPR’s April Fulton draws attention to the “fairly recent phenomenon” of orthorexia – the obsessive pursuit and consumption of an ostensibly healthy diet.
  • “And I think, you know, just knowing that things don’t last forever and how important sort of all of these little things are and building memories with [my daughter] – I think it's definitely true that I've become a little bit more of an emotional mother, I think, in the wake of my breast cancer experience, and really want to be present for as much as possible because I understand that life is finite.” In conversation with NPR's Noel King, cancer survivor and science writer Kate Pickert shares the story of her fight with the disease and talks about her new book, Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America.
  • “We’ve had Uber and Lyft members… end up in homeless shelters for six months at a time, to drivers talking about food scarcity, to people living in their cars and sleeping at the airports overnight. We saw such high levels of depression and despair, and eventually we started to see the suicides.” Fast Company’s Katharine Schwab quotes New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai’s recent panel discussion at NYU’s AI Now Symposium, underlining how some Lyft, Uber, and other app-based driving service workers live in poverty and experience despondency due to the low-paying business models of rideshare companies.  

a hand holding a phone above a spiral
Image credit: Aaron Lau via Unsplash
Communications & Digital Society
  • In a recent tweetorial, pediatric allergy/asthma specialist Dr. Dave Stukus details his rendezvous with Dr. Google after looking up potential causes for a sudden excess of afflatus and his subsequent trip down a rabbit hole of misinformation engineered to drive unwitting users toward a bevy of products and services touted as treatments for various pseudomedical conditions.
  • “Take any given study with a good deal of skepticism. Mistakes will inevitably be made, and often they’ll circulate much more widely than the corrections that follow later.” Vox’s Kelsey Piper reports on a widely touted study from 2015 that found religious children around the world who were identified as “religious” to be “less generous” than their non-religious counterparts. The study was recently retracted because scholar Azim Shariff, a leading expert on religion and pro-social behavior, discovered the findings were incorrect and based on a coding error. The retraction and error did not make headlines or even news, but the original study’s erroneous findings are still being reported post-retraction.   
  • “If I call technology something that people get addicted to, there needs to be a pusher, a dealer doing it to you. But if I say technology is something that people overuse, then it’s, ‘Oh, crap, now I need to do something about it myself.’ If you hold your breath waiting for companies to make their products less engaging, you’re going to suffocate.” At the New York Times, Nellie Bowles profiles Israeli-American author, lecturer and investor Nir Eyal, author of the 2014 bestselling (and controversial) Silicon Valley “industry manual” Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and his latest book, which, in a turnaround, proffers a cure for the malaise of informational distraction.

  • “Wearables are still a nascent technology, and studies are underway to assess whether they are moving the needle on healthy outcomes. But for these plans, offering Apple Watches as a fitness benefit might be a way to sign up and retain members interested in staying active later in life, where there are proven benefits to healthy eating and exercise.” CNBC’s Christina Farr reports on private Medicare plan Devoted Health becoming the first Medicare Advantage plan to offer the Apple Watch as a membership benefit.
  • “The pressure to publish a positive story can lead scientists to spin their results in a better light, and, in extreme instances, to commit fraud and manipulate data. The problem is worsened by funding agencies that reward only those researchers who publish positive results.” In a column for Nature, Canadian postdoctoral researcher Devang Mehta highlights the global scientific community’s partiality towards positive results in clinical trials and research studies and calls for a balance in the promotion of both negative and positive findings (H/T @EricTopol).
  • “As digital medicine matures we should have reason to believe that sometimes good things can develop when different groups collaborate to help sort out the mess that is healthcare.” In an article for Forbes, Yale’s Greg Licholai sheds light on the digital advances and developments in healthcare and the valuable contribution of groups such as Digital Medicine Society (DiMe) and Digital Therapeutics Alliance (DTA) in ensuring the advances are “ethically sound” and in alignment with good digital practice guidelines (H/T @_DiMeSociety).