Nov 23, 2010

Mental distress hounds university students - study

MORE than 80 per cent of university students are struggling with psychological distress, a new study has found.

University of Queensland researchers polled 6500 Australian uni students and found 83.9 per cent were mentally distressed, far outstripping the rate in the general population (29 per cent).

The study also found rates of serious mental illness among those polled were more than five times higher than in the general population (19.2 per cent, compared with 3.0 per cent).

Study author Dr Helen Stallman, a clinical psychologist and researcher with the university's Schools of Medicine and Pharmacy, said the results were staggering.

"It's just enormous. It's huge," she told AAP.

Of particular concern was that the study showed only about a third of the most seriously affected students sought help from health professionals.

The study found 83.9 per cent of students surveyed reported elevated distress levels, with 64.7 per cent of these exhibiting mild to moderate symptoms of mental illness.

Only 16 per cent of the sample were classified as not having any mental distress, Dr Stallman said.

She said there were things that students could do to help guard against mental distress.

"The big ones would be having realistic expectations, having some balance, and being connected," she said.

There was evidence to suggest benefits from students continuing to live at home in a strong family network, or with a partner, rather than in share houses with other uni students.

"People who have that connectedness seem to be doing better so that is a protective factor," she said.

"Having social connections and relationships with people means they're more likely to buffer against stress and distress."

She said other potential traps for students included "perfectionist thinking", being too self-focused, and too concerned with academic results.

"If your whole being is about being a student, and you don't do well, you could fall in a heap. If being a student is just one of the things you do, you're more likely to cope with that OK."

She said the university was developing an online program, funded by the national depression initiative beyondblue, to help build mental resilience in students.

"Universities and governments need to focus on the idea of promoting resilience as a key aspect of developing really capable graduates," she said.

"They're going to go out into the world and get jobs. There's a huge social cost there if some of our best and brightest are hindered by these sorts of things."

For more information about mental health visit Beyond Blue.

Nov 22, 2010

Qantas keeps its head above water despite Titanic near-miss

The Airbus A380 represents the pinnacle of global aviation. It is especially the jewel in the crown in Singapore, where the government-owned Singapore Airlines was the launch customer. But when an A380 was coming in to land at Singapore's Changi International Airport on the morning of November 4, the emergency ground crews were filled with trepidation. This was a disaster waiting to happen. This A380 was the Nancy Bird Walton, the flagship of the Qantas fleet.
All the ingredients were in place for the 90th anniversary of Qantas to be marked by a catastrophe. I don't think many people, outside the experts, realise how close it came to a spectacular end to Qantas's brilliant run as the world's safest major airline.
Flight QF32, Singapore to Sydney, departing at 9.30am, was in distress just six minutes into the flight when the number two engine blew up. The plane was put into a circle pattern over open water for more than an hour as the five-member flight crew worked furiously on diagnostic checks to see what controls they had and what had been lost.
The hydraulics system was badly compromised. There was total loss of hydraulic fluid in the Green system, while the Yellow system remained intact. There was an open gash in the wing, with a fuel leak, and a second massive leak in a mid fuel tank. The left inner tank was also leaking. Part of the fuel distribution system had ceased to function, so fuel imbalances could not be fixed, or fuel jettisoned from the tail tank. It meant they would not be able to balance the aircraft properly for landing.
There was more: a hole in the upper wing surface; damage to leading edge slats on the wings; only partial use of speed brakes; shrapnel damage to some wing flaps. The pilot was unable to shut down the number one engine using the fire switch, thus no fire protection was available for that engine. The auto-brakes were compromised. The anti-skid mechanism was gone. One of the two engines that could provide reverse-thrust on landing was no longer operating.
The pilot, Richard Champion de Crespigny - remember that name - was going to have to battle the plane down with numerous elements inoperable that would have stabilised the aircraft. One tilt of the wings, one crumpling landing gear, one burning tyre, and sparks would shower on the tarmac. With an open and leaking fuel tank, sparks could create a fireball.
Four hundred and fifty-nine dead. The airline equivalent of the Titanic.
The crew decided to get the plane down rather than wait. They were concerned by the plane's worsening lateral imbalance. With so many pieces missing, the captain would need almost every metre of the runway, and fuel would be leaking throughout. The plane still had 80 tonnes of fuel. It was overweight. It would also have to make a high-speed landing. Every emergency crew at Changi was being positioned to lay down fire-retarding foam.
At the moment of crisis, the largest, most complex plane ever created was dependent on a pilot to get it down intact. By the time Captain de Crespigny brought the plane to a halt, he had just 120 metres of tarmac to spare. A reconstruction of events would make a compelling documentary. Several important and perhaps unappreciated elements emerge from this story:
  • This was not a problem of Qantas's making. It was a new jet, with new engines, all tests made and all systems checked. This problem was created in the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby where the Trent 900 engine was manufactured. Vested interests have conflated this incident into a wider industrial argument about the standards of Qantas maintenance. The two issues have nothing to do with each other.
  • Disaster was avoided by the one thing Qantas did control - the training and quality of the flight crew. They were outstanding. Qantas maintains world-best-practice in training.
  • While Qantas has grounded its A380s, Singapore Airlines, which flies the same aircraft with the same engines, temporarily grounded three A380s to replace engines, but kept eight of its 11 A380s in the air. Singapore Airlines enjoys a reputation as one of the world's best airlines.
  • This abundance of caution by Qantas would be partly caused by an unhappy spate of in-flight mechanical incidents requiring aircraft to turn back. All airlines suffer grounded flights, and sometimes these come in clusters. On Friday, a Virgin Blue flight made an emergency landing in Melbourne. But the Australian media is on a constant drip-feed of negative information about safety at Qantas as part of a union campaign against maintenance being outsourced overseas.
  • The most detailed account of the QF32 incident appeared anonymously on the internet before any news stories or detailed statements from Qantas. It turned out to be accurate, more evidence that the internet is making the world more transparent even amid all the disinformation that also pours through cyberspace.
  • The Airbus A380 is a commercial aviation engineering project of unprecedented ambition. In a system so large and complex the number of things that can go wrong is also large. Perhaps the A380, with its vast bulk, is operating closer to the limits of technology than we first understood.
I've never been on an A380 but I won't blink when the time comes. I look forward to it. Every time we step into a motor vehicle, or ride a bicycle into traffic, we have already done a risk/reward assessment. It's no different with planes, except that the odds are still better in the air.

Nov 18, 2010

Taxpayers take hit in chemists' ripoff

Hard to swallow
Date/Time: 2010:11:17 22:16:29 Source: The Australian
IT is a price list no chemist wants you to see.
And it reveals how taxpayers are forking out up to 60 per cent more than they should for generic drugs under the government's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
The pricing schedule, obtained by The Australian, shows taxpayers are reimbursing chemists $48.18 for Simvastatin, one of the most commonly used cholesterol lowering drugs. But chemists are paying as little as $19.27 for it. The chemist does not have to pass the profit on to the consumer under the rules governing the $8.4 billion annual subsidy scheme.
The problem is not only costing consumers. Taxpayers are spending billions of dollars a year more than they need to for subsidised medicine.
Medicines Australia chairman Will Dellat told the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday the problem meant Australians had to wait longer before the government could afford to put medicines on to the scheme.
A government budget cut was designed to claw back some of these savings for consumers but it is now in jeopardy.
The opposition has announced it will be opposing legislation that underpins an agreement reached between the government and medicine companies to cut the high prices the government pays for generic medicines.
The Greens are also unhappy with some aspects of the legislation and have outlined amendments. Senator Nick Xenophon has yet to make up his mind on the bill and insiders say the outcome could hinge on Family First Senator Steve Fielding.
If the bill is rejected next week it will leave a $1.9bn hole in the government"s budget.
But it will also mean consumers are left paying higher prices for medicines than they need to.
Prices for hundreds of generic medicines to control blood pressure and cholesterol and for antibiotics were expected to fall by as much as $21 a script under the budget changes.
The list of the discount prices offered by one drug supplier to a chemist obtained by The Australian shows chemists are receiving discounts of between 5 per cent and 60 per cent.
Canberra pharmacist Will Ho says his company has large buying power and is able to get even bigger discounts. The reason its prices are 50 per cent lower than ordinary chemists is it hands those discounts back to patients.
A spokesman for the Pharmacy Guild said it was supporting the government's budget cuts. "We recognise the government is entitled to maximise the value for taxpayers," a spokesman said.
Generic medicine companies are angry because they were not a party to the government agreement. Alphapharm managing director Martin Cross told The Australian yesterday there was no guarantee the consumer would be able to realise the savings in medicine prices that should flow from the government price cuts.

Nov 9, 2010

'If it ain't Boeing, I'm not going'

The investigation now underway into Qantas's A380s is one of the most complex detective stories ever to unfold in the aviation world.

Qantas is going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that there is no repeat of last Thursday's uncontained engine failure on one of its A380s just after it left Singapore for Sydney.

"Uncontained engine failure" is technical talk for an explosion that ripped apart the engine casing, sending hot metal fragments into the wing at high speed. It's not yet known whether it was good luck or good design that prevented a fuel explosion that could have killed all 466 people aboard.

In fact the explosion did damage the aircraft's hydraulics and cut some of the control lines to another of the plane's engines, which could not be shut down normally after the plane returned to Singapore.

The fact that the engine type, the new-technology Rolls Royce Trent 900, was developed and built by the British manufacturer with a fearsome reputation for reliability simply adds to the intrigue that has gripped the aviation industry.

So does that fact that the only other A380 operators using the Trent 900 design, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, cleared their A380s to fly again after inspections that took less than 24 hours.

About 70 per cent of the airlines that have ordered the A380 have chosen the Trent 900 engine option; the rest, such as the world's biggest A380 operator Emirates, have gone for the Engine Alliance GP7000, developed by an American joint venture between aero engine manufacturers General Electric and Pratt and Whitney.

Whatever the cause of the fault that is eventually tracked down by the forensic engineering now underway, the people who are paying for the tickets to fly in these mega-machines are already forming opinions based on their own prejudices.

"If it ain't a Boeing, I'm not going" was one of the many cliches wheeled out this week – the irony being that even though there are more Boeings than Airbuses in the skies, Airbus in the past few years has been decisively outselling Boeing in the airline marketplace.

As a free market research tool for the plane makers, here's what they're up against in one of the world's keenest nation of flyers, long-haul and short-haul.

What's your cliche? Do you have strong beliefs about who makes better aeroplanes? Does Airbus's new technology outfly Boeing's tried-and-true designs? Have the past week's events changed the way you view airlines and/or the plane-makers? Do you have confidence that the current technical issues will be resolved safely?

Nov 3, 2010

Make bank accounts portable - business

A RADICAL solution like introducing portable bank account numbers would spark competition in the banking sector, small business says.  Consumers and small businesses currently have to fill out forms to change bank accounts and are assigned a different account number each time.  The bureaucratic process often discourages customers from leaving a bank which pays low interest on savings or charges higher mortgage rates.

But the Council of Small Business of Australia (COSBOA) says portable bank account numbers would solve this problem. Customers could retain their account number in the same way that mobile phone users keep the same number as they change providers.  "If we have a portable bank account number, that means we can move banks very quickly, the little banks can offer new products, the independent brokers can offer new products and you'll have a whole new marketplace," COSBOA executive director Peter Strong told ABC Television today.  "We need to do something radical."

Mr Strong said political will could make his idea a reality within 12 months.

"I don't think it's that difficult," he said.  "We've got the technology available, the telephone companies said it was impossible to have portable telephone numbers and that happened very quickly."  The latest 25 basis point interest rate rise, taking the cash rate to 4.75 per cent, was likely to see business retrench staff or reduce their hours, he said.  "We don't like sacking people, or putting people off, it hurts."

Nov 2, 2010

`Study backs mandatory move on salt

Health experts are urging the government to set mandatory salt limits for food, as this would deliver "20 times the benefit" than the current voluntary approach.   A University of Queensland study has calculated the impact of different ways to tackling the nation's unhealthy obsession with salt, a major contributor to cardiovascular disease.

It assessed the current carrot approach - incentive-based programs which encourage industry to voluntarily reduce salt levels in their food offerings - as well as the big stick of imposing mandatory salt limits across the food supply.  "Programs to encourage the food industry to reduce salt in processed foods ... are an excellent investment," said Dr Linda Cobiac, from the university's School of Population Health.

She said the analysis showed the existing "incentive-based" approach had delivered some cuts to salt in popular foods, and this would flow on to improved population health and reduced health-sector spending over the longer term.  "However ... government intervention to make moderate salt limits mandatory for all manufacturers could achieve 20 times the health benefits for the Australian population," Dr Cobiac also said.

The study assessed the effectiveness of providing only dietary advice to those most at risk - such as those with high blood pressure - alongside the current voluntary approach and also the move to mandatory salt limits.  It found 610,000 years of healthy life could be gained if every Australian reduced their intake to the recommended limit of no more than six grams of salt per day.  Dietary advice alone was found to reduce the nation's salt-related disease burden by less than half of one per cent, and it was "not cost-effective".

The voluntary approach was cost effective and would cut ill health by almost one per cent, which Dr Cobiac said was considerable.  But the mandatory move was found to reap an 18 per cent reduction in salt-related ill health.  It was thought 94 per cent of Australian men and 64 per cent of women exceeded their recommended daily salt intake, Dr Cobiac said, while further research showed salt could be reduced in many products with little impact on taste.   "Food manufacturers have a responsibility to make money for their shareholders, but they also have a responsibility to society," she said.

"If corporate responsibility fails, maybe there is an ethical justification for government to step in and legislate.    The research is published online in the journal Heart.