The best health news of 2013

7 developments that could be great for your health

Published: December 2013

This was a big year in health news, and not just because of the Affordable Care Act, though it dominated the headlines. Here is a rundown of trends, regulatory actions, and research findings that could be great for your health—and yes, your wallet, too.

1. Affordable health care is available for all Americans

OK, the new health care law didn't exactly start with a bang back in October. But in the last month or so, the number of people signing of for health insurance has increased substantially, and by Jan. 1, hundreds of thousands of previously uninsured people should be insured. Even better, premiums are coming in lower than expected, with most people able to buy a plan for less than $100 a month. Even if you already have an individual insurance plan, it might be worth shopping for a new one, especially if you’re not thrilled with your coverage. You can look at the options and register for one at Need help navigating the new law? See our interactive tool at And see our complete coverage of the new health care law.

2. You may soon be able to read your doctor’s notes

Illustration: Tracy Walker

Under a yearlong pilot program, some 20,000 patients in Boston, Seattle, and rural Pennsylvania were given access through a secure online portal to the notes their providers took during their medical visits. The experiment, called OpenNotes, was a smashing success: 82 percent of patients who were invited to view their notes did, and most said that they took better care of themselves, understood their conditions better, and did a better job taking their medication as a result. Perhaps more surprising, doctors also loved the program, reporting little or no difference in their workload and few additional questions or requests due to patients seeing the notes. The Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the Veterans Administration said this year that they, too, are giving some or all of their patients access to their notes. Read more about how communicating electronically with your doctor can improve your health.

3. Rates of one of the worst hospital infections has dropped

A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February showed that bloodstream infections associated with central lines—one of the deadliest types of hospital infection—fell by 41 percent between 2008 and 2011. That translates into 12,503 fewer infected patients. (The infection is caused by the mishandling of intravenous catheters used to deliver fluids, medication, and nutrition to patients in intensive care.) The decline follows campaigns by consumer groups, including Consumer Reports' Safe Patient Project, to require hospitals to track infections and report them publicly. Thanks to their pressure, that long-resisted practice is now generally accepted as an essential component in keeping patients safe. Another benefit of making infection rates public is that it has enabled us to begin rating hospital safety. See our Ratings of more than 4,500 hospitals nationwide.

4. Doctors are taking a stand against unnecessary treatments

Up to 30 percent of the money spent on health care in the U.S. is wasted on tests and treatments that aren’t needed or that don’t work. That’s why Consumer Reports—along with the ABIM Foundation, a group formed by the American Board of Internal Medicine, and more than 50 medical societies—have started a campaign called Choosing Wisely. It gives consumers the information they need to avoid overused or unproven treatments. For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians now says that most women don’t need a Pap smear every year.  And the  American Urological Association says that most men shouldn’t take supplemental testosterone for erection problems. Fewer Pap smears or prescriptions to fill?  We’ll take it.

5. For maintaining a healthy weight, every bit of exercise really does help

Short bursts of less than 10 minutes of high-intensity physical activity—such as brisk walking, climbing stairs, or jumping rope—reduced the risk of obesity for more than 4,500 people, according to a study published in September in the American Journal of Health Promotion. That’s big news, since exercise recommendations generally focus on workouts of at least 10 minutes (the amount needed to benefit the heart), which might discourage people from becoming active if they have, say, only 5 minutes. It’s another reason to park in a space farther from your office and keep a jump rope in your desk. (Read our article "Get In Shape During the New Year," including reviews of activity trackers, ellipticals, rowing machines, spin bikes, and treadmills.)

6. Fewer nursing-home residents are getting antipsychotic drugs

Photo: Andrea Fischman

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported in August that 11 states had reduced the use of prescription antipsychotic drugs for people in nursing homes by at least 15 percent over the previous year. That meets a goal set by a national initiative for improving the care of people with dementia. Those powerful drugs are overused in nursing homes, often given to patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia to reduce agitation. But they don’t help dementia, and they have been linked to a greater risk of dying in elderly patients. The states that met the goal were  Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and  Vermont. (The bad news: too many children are now taking the drugs. Read our new report on the overuse of the antipyschotic drugs in children.)

7. You really can cut your drug costs

One of the easiest ways is simply to shop around. In February our secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies in the U.S. to ask for the price of a month’s supply of five frequently prescribed drugs, including the generic versions of Lipitor, a cholesterol drug, and Plavix, a blood thinner. The result? A whopping difference of $749, or 447 percent, between the highest and lowest prices. Costco was the least expensive overall, and you don’t have to be a member to use its pharmacy. CVS, Rite Aid, and Target had the highest retail prices. Read more about Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.

Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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