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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.

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.

For Mark Campano’s entire career as an anesthesiologist, other doctors worried that he was a bomb waiting to go off. They saw him showing up for work drowsy and agitated from weeks of caffeinated days and alcohol-soaked nights. They counseled him about his drug abuse and urged him to stop.

Putting together a scientific research paper should be a different process than building a Ford Taurus or making a Big Mac.

For the drug companies and their ghostwriting partners, it isn’t.

Do you know how many hours there are in a week?

For doctors, the answer is on the tips of their tongues: 168 hours. As one medical resident recently put it to me, “When you are in residency, you start with the hours in the week and then subtract the few hours that you are not at the hospital. It’s not uncommon to work 120 hours a week. It’s the reverse human schedule.”

Have you ever worked on a story where you knew that you were just one source away from a blockbuster? But you could never find that one great document that spelled out the connections or that one repentant insider willing to walk you through the corporate crime, government malfeasance or law enforcement deceit.

Most reporters never have the misfortune of being sued for libel. If they are, there are broad free speech protections in court precedent, especially in California, that make it unlikely a plaintiff will win, unless a reporter has been truly reckless.

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