Center for Health Journalism

William Heisel's Antidote: Investigating Untold Health Stories

William Heisel, former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writes about investigative health reporting. He is currently the director of global engagement at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

I started listing my favorite stories of the past year, in no particular order, on Dec. 21. Here is the rest of the list.

At VA Hospital, A Rogue Cancer Unit,” Walt Bogdanich, The New York Times

Last week, Antidote spoke with Dr. Doris K. Cope, a seasoned anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who is one of the voices behind the new Life Line to Modern Medicine campaign from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Antidote started as a way to share innovative investigative ideas in health reporting, in part by highlighting reporters who have done an exceptional job digging for great stories. Starting this week I am going to list 10 of my favorite stories from the year, in no particular order.

Smart Choices Foods: Dumb as they look? ,” Rebecca Ruiz, Forbes, October 2009

The American Society of Anesthesiologists wants to change the way people think about pain medicine, both to promote the idea that anesthesiologists are not just experts in the surgical suite and also to prevent addictions and deaths.

Dr. Scott Takasugi finally ran out of excuses.

The Sacramento plastic surgeon was accused of molesting his patients, some of whom were as young as 12.

His patients said that they came in for breast enhancements or reductions, yet Takasugi told them to take all their clothes off. Then he touched and photographed them. To explain this behavior, Takasugi told the Sacramento Bee:

What I did was misconstrued medical procedures.

It’s safe to say that most health writers pay attention when Tracy Weber and Charlie Ornstein publish something.

They have been called the Woodward and Bernstein of health reporting. The comparison fits because these two have few peers in their ability to dig for documents, cajole sources into talking and embarrass powerful public figures.

Freelance journalist Martha Rosenberg recently made an interesting comparison between embattled drug giant Wyeth and former insurance giant AIG. The latter famously handed out massive bonuses and planned lavish company retreats at a time when the company was receiving billions in federal bailout funds.

Dr. Panayiotis Baltatzis has been given many chances.

In 1995, the Maryland State Board of Physicians placed Baltatzis on probation after other physicians in a peer review process found that he had, among other things, prescribed narcotics to patients he had not adequately evaluated. The doctor, who practices in Baltimore area, was supposed to take a class in prescribing controlled substances and submit to annual peer review of his practice.

In June 2002, Dr. David F. Archer had a paper published under his name that reassured women everywhere that they could take antibiotics and birth control pills at the same time and not worry about pregnancy. The article was music to the ears of executives at Wyeth, the drug company giant.

It’s not as seductive as a candlelit bedroom.

But a dinner with medical colleagues after a board meeting can exert a powerful a pull on talented scientists flirting with the drug industry. Rarely one-on-ones, these dinners are usually threesomes:

1. The seducer: a representative for a medical communications company that has been hired by a drug company to help market a particular product or disease in need of new cures being cooked up by the company.

2. The object of seduction: a researcher with known expertise in the company’s target area.

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