Daily Rounds: Untaxed Health Insurance; Lifesaving Diet; Digital Diagnoses; Royal Morning Sickness

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The (huge and rarely discussed) health insurance tax break (NPR-Shots) - "What's the largest tax break in the federal tax code? If you said the mortgage interest deduction, you'd be wrong. The break for charitable giving? Nope. How about capital gains, or state and local taxes? No, and no Believe it or not, dollar for dollar, the most tax revenue the federal government forgoes every year is from not taxing the value of health insurance that employers provide their workers. Yet most people don't even realize that they don't pay taxes on the value of those health benefits. That's too bad, saysMIT health economist Jonathan Gruber, because it represents a whole lot of money. "If we treated health insurance the same way we treat wages," says Gruber, "we would raise about $250 billion per year more." That not only makes the health insurance exclusion the federal government's largest tax break, but it's also "the third largest health care program in the U.S., after Medicare and Medicaid.'"

Diet's role in lowering risk of repeat heart attacks (The Wall Street Journal) - "Patients with heart disease frequently assume that medication is enough to forestall a repeat heart attack or stroke, but a large new study shows the preventive power of a healthy diet. The findings from a report, released Monday, looked at the impact of diet in addition to the medicines routinely used to treat cardiovascular disease. Although it is widely accepted that healthy diets are powerful tools to prevent cardiovascular disease, less is known about the impact of diet on people who already have the disease. People with the healthiest diets—those with the highest intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and a higher intake of fish relative to meat poultry and eggs—were 35% less likely to die from a repeat heart attack or stroke during the length of the study, compared with those with the least healthy diets, according to the five-year study of 32,000 people in 40 countries."

For second opinion, consult a computer? (The New York Times) - "Just how special is Dr. Dhaliwal’s talent? More to the point, what can he do that a computer cannot? Will a computer ever successfully stand in for a skill that is based not simply on a vast fund of knowledge but also on more intangible factors like intuition? The history of computer-assisted diagnostics is long and rich. In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed software to diagnose complex problems in general internal medicine; the project eventually resulted in a commercial program called Quick Medical Reference. Since the 1980s, Massachusetts General Hospital has been developing and refining DXplain, a program that provides a ranked list of clinical diagnoses from a set of symptoms and laboratory data. And I.B.M., on the heels of its triumph last year with Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer, is working on Watson for Healthcare.

A royal spotlight on a rare condition (The New York Times) -"News that the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, is pregnant spurred headlines and excitement around the world on Monday, but the exuberance was tempered by word that the mother-to-be has been hospitalized with a rare form of severe morning sickness. Most people have never heard of the condition, called hyperemesis gravidarum or H.G., now getting worldwide attention. To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Marlena Fejzo, an obstetrics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Fejzo twice experienced H.G. during her own pregnancies and is an adviser and board member for the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation. We talked about the risks of H.G., why it happens and whether its occurrence can predict the sex of the baby. Q. What is hyperemesis gravidarum? A. It’s severe, debilitating nausea and vomiting in pregnancy that generally leads to more than 5 percent weight loss and requires fluid treatment. Sometimes, in more extreme cases, it requires nutritional supplements."

This program aired on December 4, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.