Helping make the health care system work for you

You can now get birth control from your pharmacist in California

birth control pills

Photo by Phoney Nickle via Flickr Creative Commons

Attention California women: You can now get birth control pills directly from the pharmacist at your local drugstore, without a prescription from your doctor.

The state Board of Pharmacy Friday adopted regulations that authorize pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives that you administer yourself, including pills, shots, vaginal rings and skin patches. The change is in a 2013 state law, but it couldn't take effect until the pharmacy board sorted out the regulations. (You can also get contraceptives from pharmacists in Oregon, Washington State and Washington, D.C.)

The goal is to increase women's access to birth control and reduce unplanned pregnancies.

Here's what it means for you:

Who is eligible to get birth control at a pharmacy?

There is no age restriction on who can get hormonal contraceptives from a pharmacist.

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Can social media help you quit smoking?

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

You use Facebook to stay in touch with old friends from high school. You use Instagram to share pictures of your breakfast.

But can you use Twitter to quit smoking?

Researchers from several California universities developed a Twitter-based smoking cessation program called Tweet2Quit and then tested it. They found that people who participated in the Twitter program were twice as likely to have abstained from smoking two months after quitting, compared with people who just used nicotine patches and visited the federal government's website designed to help people quit smoking.

The findings prove that social media "has potential" to be used to spur and reinforce other healthy behaviors, like exercise, weight loss, and quitting other drugs, says UC Irvine marketing professor Connie Pechmann, lead author of the study, which is published online in the journal Tobacco Control. But she cautions that research on how to successfully use social media is still developing.

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Is mindfulness catching on as a treatment for chronic pain?

Spirit-Fire via Flickr Creative Commons

What if there was a way to reduce back pain just by using your mind?

A new study says that's possible. The study, published this week in JAMA, finds that the practice of mindfulness can be an effective treatment option for chronic back pain.

I'll dig into what mindfulness is, why it's been shown to help people manage chronic pain and why it's not yet a mainstream treatment option.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them.

You can practice mindfulness formally, during meditation, or informally, during your daily activities. You can do it with some simple techniques like focusing on your breath; noticing the sights, sounds and smells around you; and recognizing that your thoughts and feelings are fleeting and don't define you.

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Does raising the smoking age to 21 keep more teens away from cigarettes?

Uppy Chatterjee via Flickr Creative Commons

As Gov. Jerry Brown ponders whether to sign into law a bill raising California's smoking age from 18 to 21, he will have little solid research on which to base his decision. But one large study predicts that making this change will lead to a significant decline in youth smoking rates and smoking-related illnesses.

State lawmakers gave final approval to the smoking age measure Thursday. If Brown signs it, California will be the second state after Hawaii to raise its smoking age to 21. The legislature also sent the governor a measure that would regulate electronic cigarettes the same as tobacco.

At least 135 municipalities in nine states – including New York, which acted in 2014, and San Francisco, which approved the change last week – have increased the minimum legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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Health apps: How do we sort the good from the bad?

Nicola Delfino via Flickr Creative Commons

Last week, I reported on a study that found an app that measures your blood pressure through your smartphone is "highly inaccurate." According to the research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the Instant Blood Pressure app missed high blood pressure levels in nearly four out of five people.

The app's manufacturer argued the study was based on faulty methodology and thus invalid;  the lead researcher defended the findings.

The research raises some bigger questions: How can we as consumers determine which mobile health apps can improve our health and which apps might actually put our health at risk?

For some answers, I reached out to Dr. Seth Martin, an assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was also a co-author of the JAMA Internal Medicine research letter.

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