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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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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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One of my first investigative stories as a reporter started with a call from a doctor who was worried about the sterilization practices at his hospital.

I started calling people at the hospital to try to answer some basic questions about what they were doing to make sure that surgical equipment was clean between procedures. “Why don’t I just come down and take a look at your process?” I suggested.

And that’s how I saw the sterilization logs.

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When a patient has a pain problem, he can seek a doctor who has experience in treating pain through a variety of measures that don’t rely solely on addictive prescription drugs.

Or he can find a doctor who acts like a Pez dispenser.

Dr. Daniel M. Howell was a Pez dispenser.

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Unless someone has had a bad experience with an insurance company, most people think of insurers as either benign or positive forces in their lives. It’s the president from “24” telling us in a deep, reassuring voice that we’ll be taken care of.

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UPDATE: Rutland will be allowed to continue practicing but cannot perform surgeries or deliveries after a judge's Jan. 7 decision. Here's the Orange County Register story.

 

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