Current Events in October 2016

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2016

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    Why not getting your flu shot could cost you

    Consumers spent roughly $9 billion last year in medical costs from not being vaccinated

    No one likes getting sick, but it seems that many Americans are loathe to go out and get a vaccination when flu season comes around. Unfortunately, it might not just be hurting their health, though.

    A new collaborative report shows that U.S. consumers spent $5.8 billion on medical costs related to the influenza virus. But monetary problems don’t stop there. In all, Americans spent roughly $9 billion in 2015 on treating diseases that can be avoided by vaccination.

    All of this begs the question, what do consumers have against vaccines?

    Economic repercussions

    The debate over vaccinations became very polarizing and high-profile in recent years after a scientific study stated that they may be linked to autism. The study was later debunked and the findings were retracted, but the notion has stuck with consumers ever since.

    While the debate over whether or not a parent should vaccinate their child continues to rage, many adults have stopped getting vaccinations as well. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the majority of U.S. adults avoided getting their flu shot last year, and the study’s authors believe that this hesitance could have major economic repercussions.

    “Vaccines save thousands of lives in the United States every year, but many adults remain unvaccinated. Low rates of vaccine uptake lead to costs to individuals and society in terms of death and disabilities, which are avoidable, and they create economic losses from doctor visits, hospitalizations, and lost income,” they said.

    Addressing the issue

    The researchers admit that increasing the rate of vaccination won’t entirely erase the amount of money lost by consumers. In fact, they even go far as to say that vaccines are not always a 100% guarantee of good health. However, they say that opening the public’s eyes to this growing problem should encourage consumers and lawmakers to look at the problem critically so that it can be addressed.

    “By highlighting the tremendous financial burden that unvaccinated individuals place on the economy and the health system, we hope that our estimate will spur creative policy solutions,” they said.

    The full study has been published in Health Affairs.

    No one likes getting sick, but it seems that many Americans are loathe to go out and get a vaccination when flu sea...

    Cheapair.com expands flights to Cuba

    Site now offers 36 routes to 10 Cuban destinations

    With the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, it's easier now for Americans to visit the island nation, and there are even more ways to get there.

    CheapAir.com reports it has expanded the number of flights on its site between the U.S. and Cuba. It says it now offers 36 routes from 11 U.S. cities to 10 Cuban destinations, adding over 280 weekly flights that have been approved by the Department of Transportation.

    Americans can fly to Cuba on eight major airlines – JetBlue, American Airlines, United, Delta, Alaska, Spirit, Frontier, and Silver Airways. In addition, CheapAir users may also access a Miami-Havana flight on Public Charters, operated by Havana Air.

    Direct flights

    Currently, there are direct flights to Cuba from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, Newark, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta, to destinations that now include Havana, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Holguin, Cienfuegos, Vardero, Cayo Largo del Sur, Manzanillo de Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, and Cayo Coco.

    In the future, CheapAir said it will have direct flights from Orlando, Tampa Bay, and Minneapolis.

    “Last year, when the rule changes for travel to Cuba opened up a historic opportunity, we jumped on it,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. “We haven’t had enough inventory to accommodate the demand, so we’re thrilled to have all these new flights. We’ll continue to offer more ways to travel to Cuba than any other site on the internet.”

    Even though the U.S. And Cuba have re-established diplomatic relations, it doesn't mean Americans can travel to that country for any reason. Tourist travel is still outlawed.

    Only 12 reasons you can visit

    However, the U.S. Embassy in Havana says there are 12 categories of travel that are permissible. They include:

    • Family visits
    • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
    • Journalistic activity
    • Professional research and professional meetings
    • Educational activities
    • Religious activities
    • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
    • Support for the Cuban people
    • Humanitarian projects
    • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
    • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
    • Certain authorized export transactions.

    With the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, it's easier now for Americans to visit the island nation, and there are even more ways to get there.CheapAir.com...

    Feds charge 'tech support' pop-up ads were phony

    Scam artists hijacked consumers' computers, charged hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs

    Tech support scams keep popping up, just like the pop-up ads that are often used to rope in unsuspecting victims. In the latest case, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has charged a group calling itself Global Access Technical Support with deceiving consumers.

    The defendants allegedly used deceptive pop-up ads to scare thousands of consumers into paying hundreds of dollars each for unnecessary technical support services.

    The ads led consumers to think there was something wrong with their computer and, secondly, that the pop-ups originated from Microsoft, Apple, or other reputable technology companies.

    The ads often included loud alarms or recorded messages warning of the apparent dire threat to consumers’ computers and “hijacked” consumers’ browsers, leaving consumers unable to navigate around the ads or close them. The ads prompted consumers to contact a toll-free number.

    Call center

    According to the complaint, once consumers called the toll-free number, they were connected to a call center in India and pitched by telemarketers who claimed to be affiliated with or certified by a major technology company.

    Consumers were told that in order to diagnose the problem, they must provide the telemarketer remote access to their computer. The telemarketers then showed consumers otherwise innocuous screens and directories on their computers, deceiving them into believing they were evidence of problems that require technical support services to repair.

    The complaint alleges that the telemarketers pressured consumers to spend anywhere from $200 to $400 for repair services that could take hours to complete and which were at best useless, and in some cases could actually harm consumers’ computers.

    The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act. The defendants are Global Access Technical Support, LLC (also doing business as Global S Connect, Yubdata Tech and Technolive); Global sMind LLC (also doing business as Global S Connect); Source Pundit LLC (also doing business as OneSource Tech Support); Helios Digital Media LLC; VGlobal ITES Pvt. Ltd.; Rajiv Chhatwal; Rupinder Kaur; and Neeraj Dubey.

    Tech support scams keep popping up, just like the pop-up ads that are often used to rope in unsuspecting victims. In the latest case, the Federal Trade Com...

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      Holiday sales expected to grow by 3.6% this year

      All told, the NRF expects consumers to spend $655.8 billion this holiday season

      As we continue to march through October, consumers across the country are gearing up for the coming holiday season. In fact, many have already begun shopping for end-of-the-year events, and the National Retail Federation (NRF) believes that this will be a big year for retailers.

      The organization made a prediction earlier this month that sales -- excluding those made in the automotive, gas, and restaurant spheres -- would be 3.6% higher in November and December than they were last year, accounting for $655.8 billion in spending. That mark would beat the current 10-year average of 2.5% growth, and would even put sales above the current 7-year growth average of 3.4%, the period of time since economic recovery began in 2009.

      “All of the fundamentals are in a good place, giving strength to consumers and leading us to believe that this will be a very positive holiday season. . . This year hasn’t been perfect, starting with a long summer and unseasonably warm fall, but our forecast reflects the very realistic steady momentum of the economy and industry expectations,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

      If the prediction proves to be true, it would be a continuance of positive growth for the economy during the holiday season; in 2015, sales increased by 3.2% over the previous year. Over the course of this year, consumers seemed more willing to pay down purchases with credit, which is a positive sign for future sales figures.

      “Consumers have seen steady job and income gains throughout the year, resulting in continued confidence and the greater use of credit, which bodes well for spending throughout the holiday season,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. However, he notes that both global and domestic political uncertainty, along with unseasonably warm weather, could still negatively impact consumer confidence going forward.

      In addition to a positive sales forecast, the NRF is predicting that seasonal employment will also stay on track in 2016. The organization believes retailers will hire between 640,000 and 690,000 workers this holiday season, in line with the 675,300 employees hired last year. Recent reports that Amazon will hire 120,000 holiday workers may pad those numbers even more.

      As we continue to march through October, consumers across the country are gearing up for the coming holiday season. In fact, many have already begun shoppi...

      Feds back off from immediate criminalization of kratom

      The agency has given the public until December 1 to file comments

      The combined power of the U.S. Congress and social media has prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to rethink its proposal to criminalize the use of kratom, a coffee-like plant that some believe could help stem the opioid epidemic.

      More than 50 members of the House and Senate wrote letters in recent weeks, criticizing DEA for its sudden and unilateral move to reclassify kratom as a “Schedule I” substance, putting it in the same category as heroin. That would subject people in possession of the plant to severe criminal penalties.

      Kratom does, in fact, have some of the same effects on the brain as opioid drugs, which is why it is used by some as a natural pain reliever. The plant, which is native to Southeast Asia, can be purchased online and inserted into capsules or brewed as a tea. Some grind the leaves into a powder and mix it into a drink.

      Some health policymakers have said the plant could prove useful as a way to prevent opioid addiction and overdose deaths. Two of the lawmakers signing the letters to DEA are doctors.

      Waiting for public comment

      According to a preliminary document posted online, the DEA has now agreed to wait to get more input from the public before taking any action, a move that surprised but delighted kratom advocates.

      The move is "shocking," according to John Hudak, a drug policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, who told The Washington Post the DEA action is out of character.

      "The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are," he told the newspaper.

      In explaining its action, the DEA said it had received “numerous comments” from the public since it published its notice of action on kratom. Before rendering a final decision, the agency said it will also receive a scientific and medical evaluation of the drug from the Food and Drug Administration.

      The public will have until December 1 to submit comments to the DEA through the Federal Docket Management System.

      The combined power of the U.S. Congress and social media has prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to rethink its proposal to criminalize the...

      WHO urges countries to reduce consumption of sugary drinks

      The organization suggests placing a tax on certain certain drinks in order to lower obesity rates

      As a general rule, consumers don’t much appreciate being told what they should or shouldn’t be eating or drinking. As such, regulation in the food and beverage industry is often met with resistance. One recent example can be seen in a lawsuit submitted by the beverage industry, along with residents and businesses in the Philadelphia area, who want to stop the city from imposing a soda tax.

      However, regulators and health agencies applaud such efforts and believe that they should be implemented more often. Now, a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) is pushing for countries around the world to follow Philadelphia lawmakers’ example and impose taxes on sugary beverages. The organization believes that doing so would go a long way towards reducing health risks like type 2 diabetes and obesity.

      “Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes. . . If governments tax products like sugary drinks, they can reduce suffering and save lives. They can also cut healthcare costs and increase revenues to invest in health services,” said Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs).

      Health crises

      WHO’s report was released on World Obesity Day to draw attention to how much the condition is affecting consumers around the globe. According to the report, the prevalence of obesity more than doubled worldwide between 1980 and 2014, with roughly 39% of adults over the age of 18 fitting that description by the end of the period.

      Further, the report states that childhood obesity has become a very real problem; an estimated 42 million children under the age of 5 were diagnosed as being obese in 2015, up 11 million over a 15-year period. Those living with diabetes also went up from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million by 2014, and 1.5 million deaths were attributable to the disease in 2012 alone.

      These disturbing upward trends are the primary reason why WHO is pushing for the reduction of free sugars in food and drink products. The organization points out that any added sugar is actually unnecessary.

      “Nutritionally, people don’t need any sugar in their diet. WHO recommends that if people do consume free sugars, they keep their intake below 10% of their total energy needs, and reduce it to less than 5% for additional health benefits. This is equivalent to less than a single serving (at least 250 ml) of commonly consumed sugary drinks per day,” said Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development.

      Fiscal recommendations

      The fiscal changes that WHO recommends countries undertake come from a meeting of global experts that took place in mid-2015. The recommendations primarily focus on giving incentives for healthier alternatives and curbing excess sugar consumption. They include:

      • Subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables that reduce prices by 10-30%, which could increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
      • Taxation of certain foods and drinks, particularly those high in saturated fats, trans fat, free sugars, and/or salt, which could reduce their level of consumption.
      • Excise taxes that apply a specific amount of tax on a (1) given quantity or volume of a product, (2) a particular ingredient, or (3) a certain percentage of the retail price.
      • Generation of public support for the taxes by putting the earned revenue towards improving health systems.

      Thus far, many countries have already taken steps to curb the amount of sugar in its foods and beverages. Mexico has implemented an excise tax on non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar; Hungary has placed a tax on packaged products with high levels of sugar, salt, and caffeine; and countries like South Africa, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the Philippines have announced intentions to impose taxes on sugary drinks.

      As a general rule, consumers don’t much appreciate being told what they should or shouldn’t be eating or drinking. As such, regulation in the food and beve...

      High-protein diet doesn't help prevent type 2 diabetes, study finds

      Obese postmenopausal women got more benefit from a diet that included more moderate amounts of protein

      A lot of people go out of their way to eat extra protein. Dieters, in particular, think that eating more protein helps them stave off hunger and prevent the loss of muscle tissue that often comes with weight loss.

      But is this really a good idea? In a study of 34 postmenopausal women with obesity, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that eating too much protein eliminates an important health benefit of weight loss -- improvement in insulin sensitivity, which is critical to lowering diabetes risk.

      "We found that women who lost weight eating a high-protein diet didn't experience any improvements in insulin sensitivity," said principal investigator Bettina Mittendorfer, PhD, a professor of medicine. "However, women who lost weight while eating less protein were significantly more sensitive to insulin at the conclusion of the study. That's important because in many overweight and obese people, insulin does not effectively control blood-sugar levels, and eventually the result is type 2 diabetes."

      A good marker

      In fact, the researchers say, insulin sensitivity is a good marker of metabolic health, one that typically improves with weight loss. In their study, the women who lost weight while consuming less protein experienced a 25 to 30 percent improvement in their sensitivity to insulin.

      Many dieters think that consuming extra protein can help preserve lean tissue -- muscle, in other words -- allowing them to lose fat without losing muscle. But Mittendorfer's findings don't support that belief.

      "When you lose weight, about two-thirds of it tends to be fat tissue, and the other third is lean tissue," Mittendorfer said. "The women who ate more protein did tend to lose a little bit less lean tissue, but the total difference was only about a pound. We question whether there's a significant clinical benefit to such a small difference."

      While the difference in muscle mass loss was slight, the same wasn't true of metabolism. The women who ate the recommended amount of protein saw big benefits in metabolism, led by a 25 to 30 percent improvement in their insulin sensitivity. That can lower the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The women on the high-protein diet, meanwhile, did not experience those improvements.

      "Very big effects"

      "Changing the protein content has very big effects," Mittendorfer said. "It's not that the metabolic benefits of weight loss were diminished -- they were completely abolished in women who consumed high-protein diets, even though they lost the same, substantial amounts of weight as women who ate the diet that was lower in protein."

      The study included 34 obese women 50 to 65 years old. Although all were obese, none had diabetes at the time of the study. They were placed in three groups for the 28-week study -- a control group, a group that ate the recommended date allowance of protein, and a third group that ate more protein.

      It's still not clear why insulin sensitivity didn't improve in the high-protein group, and Mittendorfer said it's not known whether the same results would occur in men or in women already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She plans to continue researching the subject.

      The findings became available Oct. 11 in the journal Cell Reports.

      A lot of people go out of their way to eat extra protein. Dieters, in particular, think that eating more protein helps them stave off hunger and prevent th...

      Sprint announces initiative to provide low-income students with free wireless devices and service

      The 1Million Project will help close the digital divide and give students equal opportunity to succeed

      The educational system has been greatly enhanced through technology in recent years. While smartboards, interactive maps, and a plethora of online tools have benefited students in the classroom, having access to something as basic as the internet outside of school also lends a huge advantage.

      Unfortunately, not all students are able to go online outside of school. Children of families that can’t afford expensive smartphones or other internet-connected devices can often lag behind, which contributes to ever-widening educational and opportunity gaps. But a new announcement from Sprint may go a long way towards evening the playing field.

      The company announced today that it will be giving away one million internet-connected devices and providing four years of internet access to low-income high school students across the U.S. It marks the largest corporate initiative to bridge the digital divide and close the “Homework Gap," according to the company.

      “Education is the foundation for our society to prosper, and the internet is an incredibly powerful tool for learning. But it’s a huge problem in America that we have 5 million households with children that lack internet connections. Those kids have a huge disadvantage and we are failing them. All of us at Sprint are committed to changing this by providing 1 million students in need with free devices and free wireless connections,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure.

      Equal opportunity to succeed

      Sprint’s new initiative, called the 1Million Project, may go a long way towards giving low-income children an equal opportunity to succeed. A report from the Pew Research Center found that students who come from low-income families are four times more likely than middle- and upper-income students to have no access to broadband internet. This is a big problem, since the report also found that 70% of teachers are assigning homework that requires some kind of web access.

      Not having access to the internet also tends to lower parent engagement in their children’s education. Teachers often choose to correspond with parents via email these days, and online grading systems make it possible for parents with an internet access to keep tabs on how their child is doing in class. Not having those connections can result in parents who are simply out of the loop.

      And when it comes time for a student to graduate, not having internet access could hamper future prospects. Applicants often have to apply for jobs online, and students wishing to learn more about scholarship opportunities and college applications will find the information on the internet.

      Providing devices

      In order to accomplish its goal, Sprint will be partnering with various non-profit agencies and manufacturers to provide free devices. Students may choose to receive a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or hotspot device, along with 3GB of high-speed LTE data per month.

      For students who go over the 3GB limit, unlimited data at 2G speeds will be available. Students who choose a smartphone will be able to use it as a hotspot and can use the device for unlimited domestic calls and texts while on the Sprint network.

      Funding for the initiative will come from donations from device manufacturers and through special events, donation drives, and other events hosted by Sprint and the Sprint Foundation. A pilot program is planned for launch in January of 2017.

      The educational system has been greatly enhanced through technology in recent years. While smartboards, interactive maps, and a plethora of online tools ha...

      Experian reports many organizations still open to cyber attack

      Many have developed plans but fewer have updated them

      As a consumer, you trust your personal information to countless businesses and organizations.

      You trust your doctor to keep your health records private, your mortgage company to protect your financial information, and your bank to secure your money from cyber attack.

      However, a new report from Experian Data Breach Resolution presents a mixed picture on whether that trust is misplaced.

      On one hand, the report found the number of organizations that have prepared a plan to deal with and prevent data breaches rose from 61% in 2013 to 86% this year. But it also found only 38% have fixed procedures and timelines for reviews and updates.

      In fact, 29% of organizations haven't conducted a review or update since the plan was put in place.

      No substitute for being prepared

      "When it comes to managing a data breach, having a response plan is simply not the same as being prepared," said Michael Bruemmer, vice president at Experian Data Breach Resolution.

      Bruemmer said it seems some organizations are simply “checking the box” when it comes to cyber security. He says developing a plan is only the first step in an ongoing process that unfortunately, must evolve to keep current with threats.

      Of all the threats out there, ransomware appears to be growing fastest, posing the greatest risk to organizations. Successful hackers who are able to find the weakest link in a corporate network can encrypt all files on the network, making them inaccessible until a ransom is paid.

      725 breaches so far this year

      The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) keeps a running count of reported data breaches in the U.S. As of early October, it had counted 725 successful breaches, with nearly half involving health care records.

      These records, which usually include extensive personal history, including Social Security numbers, make it easy for hackers to steal identities.

      The Experian report is not all bad news. For example, it shows 58% of organizations have increased their level of preparedness. But Bruemmer says that number needs to be higher to ensure the safety of U.S. consumers.

      "Investing in breach preparedness is like planning for a natural disaster,” he said. “You hope it will never happen, but just in case, you invest time and resources in a response plan so your company can survive the storm."  

      As a consumer, you trust your personal information to countless businesses and organizations.You trust your doctor to keep your health records private,...

      Anthem won't pay for new muscular dystrophy drug

      It says the new drug is still 'investigational' even though it's approved by the FDA

      There is only one drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which generally strikes children between 3 and 5 years of age and severely limits their life expectancy.

      Patient advocacy groups fought for FDA approval of the new drug, Exondys51, even though an FDA advisory panel advised against it.

      But now, according to an Rx411 report, Anthem is refusing to cover the drug, saying it is “considered investigational and not medically necessary.” A statement on the insurer’s website says it’s uncertain whether Exondys51 has a “clinically meaningful benefit.”

      To support this, it points to the FDA’s label indications, which include a statement that a clinical benefit has not been established and continued approval is contingent on continued clinical trials. 

      Though research data has shown that that Exondys51 has increased production of the dystrophin gene in Duchenne MD patients, which should result in improved motor function in those patients, that improvement has not yet been shown in a clinical trial.

      $300,000 a year

      Drugmaker Sarepta Therapeutics will now be required to conduct a clinical trial to confirm that the drug does actually improve those functions.  If that trial fails to verify that clinical benefit, says the FDA, it may start proceedings to withdraw its approval of the drug.

      Besides being the only drug approved in the U.S. to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Exondys51 is wildly expensive -- currently priced at around $300,000 a year.

      Whether other insurance companies will cover the drug appears to be a mixed bag. Some, including Cigna and UnitedHealth Group, have said they will. Blue Cross Blue Shield is reported to be doing the same. A spokesman for Aetna says they plan to review things further before they make a coverage decision.

      There is only one drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which generally strikes children between 3 and 5...

      Can real doctors match online diagnosis?

      Human physicians beat computers 72-34 percent in a Harvard Medical School study

      Have a headache, indigestion, or a weird-looking mole? You can head to any number of websites to input your symptoms and get a list of potential diagnoses, which nearly always include cancer, diabetes, heart failure, and other dire-sounding conditions.

      After all, computers are more powerful than ever and the alogrithms that run online platforms are written by really smart web developers, so they're surely just as good as -- maybe even better than -- something your dumb old doctor would come up with.

      True or false?

      According to a study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, the answer is "false." The findings, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, show that physicians' performance is vastly superior and that doctors make a correct diagnosis more than twice as often as 23 commonly used symptom-checker apps.

      It's believe to be the first direct comparison between human-made and computer-based diagnoses.

      The problem of diagnostic errors is a thorny one, with doctors failing to recognize a disease in a timely manner roughly 10 to 15 percent of the time. Over the last few decades, computerized checklists and other digital failsafes have been developed to reduce medication errors, streamline infection-prevention protocols, and generally provide what might be termed a second set of eyes and ears.

      The researchers wanted to find out if digital diagnosis could reduce diagnostic errors. So, they signed up 234 internal medicine physicians and asked them to evaluate 45 clinical cases, coming up with the most likely diagnosis and two additional possible diagnoses.

      Doctors 72, computer 34

      The physicians outperformed the symptom-checker apps, listing the correct diagnosis first 72 percent of the time, compared with 34 percent of the time for the digital platforms. Eighty-four percent of clinicians listed the correct diagnosis in the top three possibilities, compared with 51 percent for the digital symptom-checkers.

      The difference between physician and computer performance was most dramatic in more severe and less common conditions. It was smaller for less acute and more common illnesses.

      "While the computer programs were clearly inferior to physicians in terms of diagnostic accuracy, it will be critical to study future generations of computer programs that may be more accurate," said senior investigator Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor of health care policy at HMS.

      While they outperformed the machines, the human physicians still made errors in about 15 percent of the cases, leading the researchers to say that developing better algorithms to be used in conjunction with human decision-making could further reduce errors.

      "Clinical diagnosis is currently as much art as it is science, but there is great promise for technology to help augment clinical diagnoses," Mehrotra said. "That is the true value proposition of these tools."

      Have a headache, indigestion, or a weird-looking mole? You can head to any number of websites to input your symptoms and get a list of potential diagnoses,...