Arizona, with its numerous medical schools and leading research institutions like Mayo Clinic and downtown Phoenix’s Translational Genomics Research Institute, is often on the cutting edge of medical news. The state’s continued growth also put several public health issues on the front burner.

Here’s a roundup of some of the biggest, most interesting medical news stories now unfolding in Arizona.

1. Shortage of primary care doctors

A shortage of primary care doctors plagues the nation, but the situation is particularly bad in Arizona, which consists of medically underserved rural areas and cities with high concentrations of retirees needing medical care.

A 2014 survey ranked Phoenix’s doctor shortage seventh worst in the nation, reports the Phoenix Business Journal.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act has also expanded medical coverage to thousands of previously uninsured people, worsening the shortage. To address the problem, programs like the University of Arizona’s Rural Health Professions Program have popped up, hoping to encourage medical students to stay in the state or potentially move to rural areas. Director Carlos Gonzales says:

“The challenge is to encourage more students to go into primary care because that is where the need is going to be for our society…Too many of our students are still enamored by sub-specialties that garner more income.”

Early in 2015, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law that expanded the types of health care providers eligible for loan repayment assistance in return for serving rural areas, reports KJZZ.

2. World Immunization Week

Immunizations against diseases like polio prevents as many as three million deaths worldwide, but 20% of children don’t have access to this lifesaving medical care, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

And some parents with access to vaccinations for their children opt out because of health concerns. About one in three Arizona kindergarten students enrolled in school without measles vaccinations or exemption forms, reports AZCentral.com.

The increasing number of children without vaccinations worried many parents when a measles outbreak occurred in January, according to AZCentral.com. That month, the number of measles vaccinations leapt by 30%. Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) Director Will Humble says:

“This is not a coincidence…I have no data to suggest that it was exactly from the outbreak, but I can’t imagine it was something else. We certainly have not had a 30% increase in births.”

Since 2000, the number of unvaccinated children in Arizona has leapt by 100%, according to DHS. Families who opt against vaccination tend to live in clusters, and DHS says those clusters put surrounding communities at risk because measles spreads rapidly. People with the disease may interact with the public and infect other people before the telltale rash appears.

Besides the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella, the most essential vaccinations include those for Hepatitis A and B, the flu, polio, and pneumonia. WHO’s World Immunization Week runs April 24 through 30 and seeks to raise awareness about the importance of vaccines while making the shots available to all children who need them.

3. Opioid-free pain medication research

Arizona State University researchers are currently examining ways to develop non-addictive painkillers to help those with acute or chronic pain find relief without developing an addiction.

A pioneering study published in the journal Nature revealed the results of scientists’ efforts to use high-tech X-ray crystallography to zero in on the exact workings of opioid brain receptors as they connect with the addictive compounds found in medications.

Researchers hope the results will open the door for new medications that have the power of killing pain without interacting with brain receptors, which is the biological underpinning of addiction.

4. Phoenix-based technology startup simplifies medical records keeping

Patients having a hard time juggling records from multiple doctors may want to keep their eye on Orb Health, a startup that recently received a $650,000 influx of capital for its web-based platform that stores health information, reports the Phoenix Business Journal.

The platform serves as a central command center for patient information, capable of receiving and sending information from doctors’ offices but also wearable devices and apps.

The platform will initially be offered to employer health groups that sign on, but is also available for individual use. Services include the ability to collect health information from numerous apps and devices, along with the opportunity to set health goals and be notified when you reach them.

Orb Health founder Paul Oran says a lot of companies are trying to help people synchronize health data. He adds:

“Where everybody will fail is by keeping that information boring and not personalizing it and not giving people (an) understanding of what it means, and not having that magical experience of taking all that raw information and making it totally meaningful and personalized for you to transform your health.”

The app goes beyond cataloguing information and helps users understand health risks, like factors increasing their odds for diabetes or heart disease.

5. New information ramps up fight against cancer

Downtown Phoenix’s Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) conducts world-class, cutting-edge research, and one of its latest studies could herald a new era in the war against cancer.

A TGen study investigated a substance known as stroma, which is a thick layer of cellular material that cancer cells blanket themselves with. A new generation of drugs that seeks to strip the stroma from the cells could heighten the benefit of other cancer drugs, particularly for pancreatic cancer patients, who were studied for this particular research.

Stroma accumulation often protects cancer cells from medications that could save patients’ lives. The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, found that increased levels of stroma were linked to a poorer prognosis. Study author Dr. Daniel D. Von Huff says:

“We are hopeful that in the future new therapeutics that target stroma will have a significant benefit for our patients, and lead to better outcomes.”

What Arizona medical news are you most excited about?

Image by NEC Corporation of America via Flickr

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