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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.

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The Medical Board of California had been warned repeatedly about an obstetrician with a history of patient deaths and allegations of negligence, but, instead of taking action, the board appointed him to supervise a doctor who had been found negligent in the death of two children.

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There was a collective cry of alarm this week to news that the Medical Board of California had mishandled the case of a physician accused of negligence in the abortion-related death of a patient.

I wrote about the Dr. Andrew Rutland case on Tuesday, detailing how the medical board had appointed a doctor who had been disciplined by the board to oversee Rutland, in violation of the board’s own policies. Here is what happened next:

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The Medical Board of California broke its own rules and appointed a doctor who had been disciplined by the board to oversee the practice of an obstetrician now accused of negligence in a patient death.

Antidote reviewed records from both the medical board investigation and the criminal investigation into the care that Dr. Andrew Rutland gave a Chinese immigrant who died in his office in October 2009. The records underscore lapses in physician discipline that persisted years after scores of government and media investigations.

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The FDA has been cracking down on companies claiming they can cure deadly diseases with unproven technologies, reminding health writers everywhere to be skeptical of the latest fads in alternative medicine.

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When you first start a health beat, visit the licensing agency for all the health facilities in your area. It will give you a great story or two out of the gate. It also will initiate a work pattern that should yield many great stories in the years to come.

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We last heard about Dr. Lawrence James Williamson when he had gone through an extremely bad year of temper tantrums, pill popping, waking blackouts and accusations he threatened his ex-wife and the mediators in his divorce.

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When undergoing an invasive procedure, such as a colonoscopy or biopsy, patients trust that the equipment being used is clean.

Nurses often open syringe containers in front of patients to emphasis that they are using the syringe for the first time. When they are done, they throw it into a biohazard container, often on display for the patient’s benefit.

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In the first of my “Making Hepatitis History” series of posts, I wrote about the Southern Nevada Health District’s Public Health Investigation Report about the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, the epicenter of the worst hepatitis C outbreak ever to hit the US.

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So convoluted was Dr. Mark B. Kabins’ scheme to scam a patient he injured that you might need a whiteboard and several differently colored markers to make sense of it.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Melodie Simon underwent a spine surgery by Kabins, an orthopedic surgeon, in 2000. It went badly, and Simon ended up paralyzed.

According to the FBI, Kabins “knew that experts could say that he fell below the standard of care in his treatment of Simon, and that he could be sued.”

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You might be alarmed at what you find in the bankruptcy records for a medical company or a physician. Here are a few things that have alarmed me.

  • Patient records, with birth dates and social security numbers.
  • Charts showing detailed histories of visits, procedures and lab workups over decades.
  • Pathology lab reports.

Why would you find all these things mixed in with more mundane financial records showing the sums various people are owed?

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The engagement editor's mission: to advance the work of our California media partners, furthering public knowledge, storytelling, engagement and connection around community health and health policy issues in diverse communities. The ideal candidate will have both journalism and community engagement experience. Go to this link to apply.

We're looking for journalists who think big and want to gain new insights into the effects on vulnerable children  and their families of poverty, trauma and toxic stress. The all-expenses-paid 2017 National Fellowship, which provides five days of intensive workshops, field trips and discussions, along with $2,000-$12,000 grants for reporting and community engagement and six months of mentoring. Click here for details. Deadline: March 24.

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