October 02, 2014

Is your brain Male or Female? Horizon, BBC 2, 29th September, 2014.

Joy of joys, a programme on a fascinating topic presented by my two favourite science programme presenters, Michael Moseley and Alice Roberts.

The question at issue was whether male and female brains are different apart from the well documented fact that male brains are, on average, larger. It also transpired that the hypothalamus is better developed in males and the hippocampus better in females.

The main focus of the programme was on brain function rather than structure.

Alice made it clear from the start that she believes any differences in brain function as manifested by behaviour are the result of social conditioning, whereas Michael believes that the differences are innate – partly genetic and perhaps partly the result of the intra-uterine hormonal environment.

The well known propensity of infant boys to play with cars and infant girls with dolls was demonstrated but is this just a reflection of parental expectations influencing the type of toys provided? To test this hypothesis is not possible in humans but the fact that with macaque monkeys the males show a preponderant interest in toy cars whereas the females show more interest in dolls seems to suggest that this difference in preferences is innate. There is a view that the male preference for toy cars is in fact a preference for things that move.

It has long been thought that males are better at visuo-spatial challenges whereas females are better at reading social signals. This was tested using standard tests and a mixed sex group of volunteers and the results were as expected, but only by a small margin. The differences between the genders are significant but not large.

Autism, it seems is just an extreme form of the male mindset – good at visuo-spatial tests but poor at social skills. High intra-uterine testosterone levels may be a key factor here.

Another interesting finding was that the dominant brain functional connections in children are the same in both genders but change after adolescence with male connections being predominantly longitudinal – from visual cortex to frontal cortex and female connections being predominantly transverse – from right lobe to left lobe.

In the end Michael and Alice agreed that the currently available evidence suggests that the differences between males and females are in part innate and in part socially/environmentally conditioned. So Michael accepted that he is not from Mars and Alice was adamant that she is not from Venus!

All in all an informative and well presented programme which gained from the sparky interaction between its two stars.

When I was a boy it was a rare to see a woman driving a car. When I achieved my 17th birthday my father gave me driving lessons but he did not do the same for my three sisters. Last week in the course of having an extension built on our house the mechanical digger used for excavating the trenches for the foundations was driven by a woman. So the impact of social conditioning towards the traditional female role is clearly in decline. The innate differences between the brains of males and females are likely to persist for the foreseeable future but, being small, in the end will have little impact on who does what.

Paul Walker, October 2014.

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October 01, 2014

EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare

With over 3.2 million people now on the NHS waiting list, an increasing number are considering private treatment. However few are aware that, under new rules introduced in October 2013, they now have the right to receive treatment anywhere in Europe and to apply for a refund of their cost from the NHS.

Under the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare, which came into force on 25 October 2013, NHS patients now have the right to receive treatment anywhere in Europe. Generally patients have to pay for their treatment first then claim reimbursement from the NHS when they return. Operations Abroad Worldwide has a dedicated department to help patients with the claims process.

Medical treatment in the Czech Republic – facts and figures 

Medical tourism in the Czech Republic is nothing new. With its many spa towns, it has long been a popular health destination, attracting visitors including Edward VII.

In recent years the country has become known as a popular location for cosmetic surgery. However today the Czech Republic is increasingly being recognised for its expertise in other areas of medicine. It has a strong track record for fertility treatment, and now is gaining a leading reputation for orthopaedic surgery including knee and hip replacements.

The recent news stories about young cancer patient Ashya King, who is receiving proton beam therapy in Prague, have helped to highlight the heavy investment in the country’s private healthcare sector and the advanced facilities available.

The Czech Republic also offers highly qualified surgeons and consultants, many of whom have trained and worked in UK hospitals.

The cost of treatment is up to 80 per cent lower than in the UK, although many UK patients undergoing routine surgery procedures such as hip or knee replacements are likely to qualify for a refund of both treatment and travel cost under the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare.

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September 30, 2014

Healthcare involves more than just doctors and nurses, says Allied Health Professions Federation

Responding to the Nuffield Trust and Health Foundation report released today, the Allied Health Professions Federation (AHPF) agrees with the call for more data to show the impact that allied health professionals (AHPs) have on the quality of care in the NHS.

According to AHPF Chair Ann Green, “As the general election approaches, there is a risk that politicians will opt for the traditional narrative that the health service is staffed only by doctors and nurses.

“The Nuffield report is a timely and authoritative reminder that 173,000 registered allied health professionals, including physios, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists, are indispensable to integration and to person-centred, coordinated care.

“We look forward to hearing from policy makers their vision for how patients can continue to benefit from the expertise of the 12 allied health professions.”


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September 24, 2014


Today Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham announced at the Labour Party conference that the party would introduce the right for people at the end of life to die at home if it forms the next government, along with a package of measures to help carers. Ellie Rose, Public Affairs Manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, says:

“We welcome the plans announced today by the Labour Party, which would help to give every person with a terminal illness in this country the choice to die at home if they wish. Every day around 100 cancer patients die in expensive hospital beds when they wanted to be at home. This is both morally wrong and a scandalous waste of precious NHS resources.

“Making social care free to those at the end of life will be an important part of delivering this commitment. It gives people with cancer a choice at the end of life, reduces pressure on hospital wards and crucially can help to ease the relentless strain on their carers.

“Macmillan is calling on the other political parties to follow suit and commit to implementing free social care at the end of life if elected at the next general election so that everyone with a terminal cancer diagnosis will be able to die at home if they want to.”


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September 20, 2014

Mencap dismayed by lack of progress to stop avoidable deaths of people with a learning disability

Yesterday evening (18 September) the Department of Health published their one year progress report on addressing premature deaths of people with a learning disability in the health service. Mencap is seriously concerned by the unacceptable lack of progress in many areas, and is calling on the Government to commit to progressing vital changes that we know will stop people with a learning disability dying avoidably in the NHS.

Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, said:

“Today’s report shows an unacceptable lack of progress in tackling the life-threatening health inequalities people with a learning disability face in our NHS.

“1,200 people with a learning disability die every year within our NHS due to inadequate care – that is three people a day. The Confidential Inquiry into deaths of people with a learning disability set out the changes needed to stop this scandal of avoidable deaths, but there has been an unacceptable lack of progress made in implementing many of the changes needed.”

“Even on areas where welcome progress has been made, such as in setting up a national mortality review, we see that government promises have already been broken, with the mortality review now not starting work until next summer at the earliest, when March had been promised.

“Over the last decade almost 100 deaths of people with a learning disability have been reported to Mencap by families. They feel poor quality care, lack of well trained staff and indifferent attitudes are to blame for their loved one’s death.

“People with a learning disability and their families have waited too long for change. Mencap is calling for the Government to act immediately to fully implement all of the recommendations of the Confidential Inquiry and make sure measures are put in place to stop the needless deaths of people’s loved ones.”

Kirsty Jayne Pearce was just 17 years old when she died avoidably within the NHS. It took her father Chas nearly 10 years to get answers, where an Inquest finally took place and concluded serious medical failings in the care contributed to Kirsty’s death.

Kirsty’s family said:

“When our beautiful daughter Kirsty died, like us she still believed that the hospital staff would save her. They failed her and allowed her to die in pain and without dignity.

“There were a catalogue of errors and significant failings by the medical and nursing staff on the night of Kirsty’s death and for this the staff responsible should be ashamed. There is no doubt that those responsible for Kirsty during the night she died broke their duty of care towards her.

“Since she died we have been fighting for justice for Kirsty. It has been very hard to get hospital staff to accept that they have made mistakes. It breaks our hearts to remember how frightened she was during her final hospital stay.”


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