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Dr. Michael Fratkin is getting a ride to work today from a friend.

"It's an old plane. Her name's 'Thumper,' " says pilot Mark Harris, as he revs the engine of the tiny 1957 Cessna 182.

Fratkin is an internist and specialist in palliative medicine. He's the guy who comes in when the cancer doctors first deliver a serious diagnosis.

On Friday afternoons, several dozen people line up in the narrow hallway of Prevention Point Philadelphia. The men and women, all ages, hold paper and plastic bags full of used syringes.

"We obviously have a space challenge, but people come in, they drop off their used syringes and they ask for what they need," says Silvana Mazzella, the director of programs at the service center for injection drug users.

As the new year begins, the Ebola virus continues its deadly spread in West Africa. More than 20,000 are infected and nearly 8,000 have died throughout the region. The number of victims keeps climbing in Guinea and Sierra Leone, and dozens of new Ebola cases in Liberia this week mark a setback after recent improvements.

Great balls of cells! Scientists are developing mock human organs that can fit in the palm of your hand.

These organs-on-a-chip are designed to test drugs and help understand the basics of how organs function when they are healthy and when they are diseased.

For instance, you have your gut-on-a-chip being developed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It's a high-tech approach to dealing with a scourge of the low-tech world.

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Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The new year is expected to bring yet another round of state laws to restrict abortion — and 2015 could also be the year a challenge to at least one of these laws could reach the Supreme Court.

The ongoing spike in abortion laws started after 2010, when Republicans won big in the midterms. Since then, state lawmakers have passed more than 200 abortion regulations — more than in the entire decade before. And with more statehouse gains in the fall elections, abortion opponents expect another good year.

When Priscilla Graham-Farmer went to get her hair done in Newark, N.J., recently, she noticed the elevator in the building was broken, so she took the stairs. And that's when Graham-Farmer saw him: a young guy sprawled out, not breathing.

"He was literally turning blue," she says. "And everybody was walking over him."

But Graham-Farmer stopped. And looked closer. She saw that he had a needle and some cotton balls. The guy had clearly overdosed.

"I'm screaming in the hallway," Graham-Farmer remembers. "Nobody's answering."

More than five decades on, the battle for justice over birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide continues in only one European country: Spain.

The holidays are here, bringing joy and, for some, wistful feelings.

Doctors are no different. Even for a profession that prides itself on scientific proof, the long nights of December afford ample opportunity for reflection and even doubt.

As we take stock of what we've accomplished and where we've failed to measure up, I find my scowling mask of medical skepticism falling away. I have to admit that there is so much wonder and mystery that science and medicine still can't explain.

E-readers may make it particularly hard to get a good night's sleep, according to research out this week.

A study that followed every nightly twitch, turn and snore of 12 volunteers for a couple weeks found that those who read from an iPad before hitting the sack had a harder time falling asleep, spent less time in a crucial phase of sleep, and were less alert the next day.

A Split View On Obamacare's Past And Future

Dec 26, 2014

Kevin Counihan and Michael Cannon look at the Affordable Care Act and see very different things.

Cannon is part of the brain trust behind a Supreme Court case that could result in the repeal of a part of the exchanges he says is illegal.

Compared with other primates and our early human ancestors, we modern humans have skeletons that are relatively lightweight — and scientists say that basically may be because we got lazy.

Despite a national crackdown on prescription drug abuse, doctors churned out an ever-larger number of prescriptions for the most-potent controlled substances to Medicare patients, new data show.

In addition, ProPublica found, the most prolific prescribers of such drugs as oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine and Ritalin often have worrisome records.

For two decades Atlanta restaurant owner Jim Dunn offered a group health plan to his managers and helped pay for it. That ended Dec. 1, after the Affordable Care Act made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Subsidies under the health law for workers to buy their own coverage combined with years of rising costs in the company plan made dropping the plan an obvious — though not easy — choice.

When it comes to teenage drinking, the typical venue is a party — where some teens play drinking games and binge. It may surprise you to learn that the majority of parents are aware that alcohol is flowing at these events.

On any given weekend, some teenagers receive three to four text messages about parties, says Bettina Friese, a public health researcher at the Prevention Research Center in Oakland, Calif.

Bob Smithson had been in the critical care unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for more than a week. He had a rare neuromuscular disease, and his 78-year-old body was being kept alive by tubes that delivered air to his lungs and food to his stomach.

Then Bob's wife, Pat, got some really disturbing news. The hospital's medical staff wanted Bob to have a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure that would carve a hole in his neck and allow doctors to keep him on a breathing machine indefinitely.

It's one of the worst fears we have for our parents or for ourselves: that we, or they, will end up in a nursing home, drugged into a stupor. And that fear is not entirely unreasonable. Almost 300,000 nursing home residents are currently receiving antipsychotic drugs, usually to suppress the anxiety or aggression that can go with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia.

While blankets, pillows and quilts sound like the makings of a cozy bed for an adult, they can be downright dangerous in an infant's crib.

Last October, Jeanette Mariani was an independent 87-year-old, living alone in Dallas and getting around with a walker. Then one night she switched off the light and tried to make her way into bed. A chair was in the way. And she fell.

"There I was, lying on the floor," she recalled. "I pulled down one of my pillows. I didn't reach very high, just pulled it down, put my head down on it and thought: 'Well, I'll wait until morning.' "

The next day, she called for help.

Doctor Shortage Looming? Maybe Not

Nov 18, 2014

The United States is facing a critical shortage of doctors that could seriously jeopardize the ability of a patient to get medical care in the coming years.

Could you walk through an Ebola treatment center in Liberia without catching the virus?

Soon you may be able to find out from the comfort of your living room. Shift Labs, a Seattle-based tech outfit, has developed a prototype for a video game that could be used to train health workers on duty in West Africa.

As children grow, they learn to crawl, to walk and then to drive. It turns out, the way they get hurt, and in particular their heads, evolves as as their forms of motion change.

Small children suffer head injuries from falling, while teenagers are at risk from car accidents, assaults and sports injuries, according to a paper published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Medical experts are meeting today and tomorrow at the World Health Organization in Geneva to figure out how to test potential Ebola drugs in Africa. In addition to determining which experimental drugs should be the highest priority, the experts are sorting through some difficult ethical issues.

In short, they're trying to figure out how to design tests that will provide the fastest and most trustworthy answers — and yet minimize the need for comparison groups who won't be offered the experimental treatments.

Breast-milk banks are a great way to help babies whose mothers aren't able to breast-feed. Breast milk, in case you didn't know, does a better job than formula at bolstering a baby's immune system, especially if the tot is premature or underweight.

HealthCare.gov barely worked when it launched last fall, with only six people able to enroll in a plan on opening day.

Critics of America's health care system say it's really a "sick care" system. Doctors and hospitals only get paid for treating people when they're sick.

But that's starting to change. Health insurance companies and big government payers like Medicare are starting to reward doctors and hospitals for keeping people healthy.

So, many health care companies are trying to position themselves as organizations that help people stay well.

The kids are asleep, and I've settled into a comfy armchair in the corner of my New England living room, one of my favorite spots for shopping online. I've got my laptop open and I'm ready to search for a bone density test.

Hmmm ... looks like the price that my insurer pays for that test varies from $190 at Harvard Vanguard to $445 at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

What if you could track people getting sick just by analyzing how they surf the Web?

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