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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.

Often following a major journalistic investigation a governor or a senator or a president even will call for hearings or declare the creation of a blue ribbon panel to assess the situation and decide how to proceed.

Years can go by before a report, usually thick with euphemism and buck passing, lands on someone's desk, often a different governor or senator or president than the one who called for the assessment. Processes are "streamlined." Efficiencies are realized. Nothing really changes.

By the time you read about the case of 9-year-old Caitlin Greenwell, unable to talk because her brain was starved of oxygen during a botched birth, you are convinced: the oversight of nurses in California is abysmal.

Her story is deep inside "When Caregivers Harm," an investigative collaboration between ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times published Sunday.

Andrew Schneider is one of the country's most accomplished investigative journalists. His work has won not just one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, and countless other awards. I had the privilege of meeting him when both of us were finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting at Harvard. My team lost. So did his.

If you, like me, were wondering how a guy like Dr. Conrad Murray, who had not bothered
keeping up with his studies enough to continue his certification as a cardiologist, could become the personal physician to the King of Pop, it's instructive to look at Dr. Jagat Narula.

Most of you won't know that name, but his career illuminates the gap between what the public expects when they see "Dr." in front of a person's name and what is often the reality.

Think about what it takes to obtain a medical license. Some states' licensing boards will rubber stamp a license from another state but others, like California's, require a lot of hoops.

Then consider the case of Dr. Gregory Burnham Camp, who had licenses in California (No. 34329), Ohio (35-028433), North Carolina (36156) and Massachusetts. Why so many states?

Misadministration. When a physician has made a horrible mistake with wide-ranging ramifications, the terms "negligence," "malpractice" even "incompetence" might come to mind. Now this wonderful euphemism glides onto the scene, draping the wreckage in a filigree of blamelessness, warding off trial lawyers and investigative journalists.

Within hours of the news breaking about Michael Jackson's death, attention started to turn toward one of the only eyewitnesses to the event: his personal physician.

New York state has an interesting job that is foreign to
most other states, the office of the Medicaid Inspector General. Lucky for health writers, the Inspector General there, James G. Sheehan, believes not only in rooting out people who are ripping off taxpayers, but in sharing his techniques and tactics with reporters.

Just when you thought it was safe to make that triple-decker peanut butter and banana sandwich, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has slapped another big peanut processor with a warning letter.

I wrote about the salmonella outbreak at a Peanut Corporation of America plant in March and offered some advice on how to investigate our national food safety system.

Robin Lowe went to the Sano Medical Clinic in Costa Mesa one June with what appeared to be an obvious and urgent problem. She had felt a lump in her left breast.

At 29, she was young to develop breast cancer. Making matters worse, she was pregnant.

Dr. James Stirbl, the doctor who ran the clinic, examined Lowe but did not recommend she undergo a mammogram or a biopsy, according to the Medical Board of California.

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Announcements

2015 National Fellow Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times and two colleagues, Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner, received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting for LaForgia's Fellowship Project, "Failure Factories." 

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