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Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

State drug web

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty faces scrutiny from federal regulators over a state-run website that refers people to Canadian pharmacies. The site is still up, even after the FDA asked the first-term Republican to reverse course, calling it "unsafe, unsound, and ill-considered."

Visitors-about 1,000 per day-can't order drugs directly off the Minnesota RX Connect website, but they are directed to two stores across the border and offered downloadable order forms.

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Pfizer, maker of drugs like Zyrtec and Viagra, reacted by cutting off supplies to two wholesalers who allegedly sold its products to so-called gray-market pharmacies. Local pharmacists say Gov. Pawlenty's campaign could devastate them, particularly those in small towns or not affiliated with large chains.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle followed Minnesota's lead, launching the Prescription Drug Resource Center, which posts information on Canadian pharmacies.

A 1987 U.S. law banned drug importation, but an estimated 1 million Americans order prescriptions from Canada anyway. The FDA is generally lenient toward people who buy drugs from Canada in small quantities, but this indulgence may be pushed to its limit. Right now, plenty of sellers offer imported drugs with no state help, but the business is considered shady.

The nurse is out

America's 2.3 million registered nurses are not enough to meet demand. Administrators and local officials are still scrambling to fill a shortage as 76 million baby boomers approach retirement age.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last month that nursing topped all occupations in projected growth through 2012. More than 620,000 new nurses will join the workforce, but that's still not enough to fill more than 1.1 million projected job openings. Even though the number of nursing students is rising, the national average vacancy rate for RN jobs today is 13 percent. Nursing is widely considered physically and emotionally grueling, even though such caregivers earn a national average of $61,000 per year.

New laws may aggravate the problem. California hospitals must have one nurse for every five patients starting in 2005. Three states (New Jersey, West Virginia, and Washington) banned forced overtime at medical facilities-and six others are considering similar laws.

To help ease the shortage, some hospitals recruit nurses from overseas. Many use shift bidding: letting nurses propose how much money they want for working certain times. Those with the lowest offers get the hours.

Two hospitals, at Johns Hopkins and the University of South Alabama, even experimented with the ultimate substitute: robot nurses. They use TV screens and video cameras to let real nurses watch and communicate with patients.

Making thje rounds

The FDA now requires bar codes on thousands of drugs given to hospitalized patients-as a measure to help save an estimated 7,000 hospitalized patients who die annually because of medication errors. Doctors and nurses use scanners to check pill bottles to ensure that a patient needs a specific dose. FDA commissioner Mark McClellan also supports another safety effort: a voluntary plan for drug makers to use new "smart" labels intended to slow counterfeit pharmaceutical trafficking.

Young athletes should wear protective eye gear-such as face guards and safety goggles-while playing sports, according to a joint recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It lists baseball, basketball, and martial arts among high-risk sports, while football, soccer, and volleyball are medium risk.

The Institute of Medicine warns that most Americans eat more than twice the salt they should but don't get enough potassium. Cantaloupe, bananas, spinach, and other fruits and vegetables contain potassium.

Aspirin may lower the risk of Hodgkin's disease, a lymph system cancer diagnosed in 7,600 Americans a year. Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health reported a possible link, saying more research could help prove it. Millions take low-dose aspirin daily to help prevent heart attacks-and some studies say the cheap pills may also help fight colon cancer.

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