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Health Journalism 2013: A Few Must-See Talks at AHCJ’s Boston Conference

Health Journalism 2013: A Few Must-See Talks at AHCJ’s Boston Conference

Picture of William Heisel

When the Association of Health Care Journalists announced last year it would hold its next conference in Boston, I assumed it was extending the typically four-day affair to a full week.

How else could AHCJ adequately take advantage of the expertise in health innovation and health journalism in one of America’s greatest cities?

I underestimated the ability of Len Bruzzese and the AHCJ conference organizers to pack into four-days almost everything you would expect and much that should come as a nice surprise. It starts on Thursday, March 14. I’m not going to be able to make it this year, so here is my wishful-thinking list of five recommendations for those fortunate enough to attend.

Thursday, 3:15 p.m., Connecting the docs: Using online tools to trace referrals

Fred Trotter, a software developer and the founder of Not Only Dev, is a data expert and an access activist. He also is great at explaining how highly technical innovations can provide practical solutions for your reporting and for patient empowerment. Two years ago, he created a doctor referral social graph. Here’s how he described it:

This dataset, which I obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request against the Medicare claims database, details how most doctors, hospitals and other providers team together to deliver care in the United States. This graph is nothing less than a map of how healthcare is delivered in this country. … There will be lots of uses of this data, but my most important project for this data is simple: I want to create algorithms to rate doctors that patients find useful and that doctors find fair. This is my primary aim with the release of this data set.

Friday, 9 a.m., Reporting on medical and financial conflicts of interest

The line-up here is an incredible mix of high-level clinical expertise and journalism know-how. The panel brings together Dr. Jerry Avorn, the chief of the Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics Division, Brigham and Women's Hospital; John Fauber, veteran investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, director of the increasingly influential PharmedOut project; Peter Whoriskey, staff writer at The Washington Post; and Brenda Goodman, one of AHCJ’s topic leaders and a freelance writer in Atlanta. Here’s just one reason to go. Fauber was described as “unstoppable,” in a piece by the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s frankly a little hard to keep up with all the ground he has been breaking on conflicts of interest. Here’s what he had to say recently about ghostwriting by one of the country’s biggest medical device makers.

Highly positive studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals depicted Medtronic's spine fusion product as a major breakthrough in back surgery, but those studies were drafted and edited with direct input from company employees, while the doctors listed as authors were paid millions, according to a U.S. Senate investigation. The company's heavy, undisclosed manipulation of information about its bone morphogenetic protein-2 product called Infuse included removing and downplaying concerns about serious complications linked to the product and overstating its benefits.

Friday, 1:40 p.m., Lessons from Massachusetts in handling health care costs

We spent a good part of 2012 hearing a lot of debate and distortions about the successes and failures of the Massachusetts health insurance program. Election-year analyses often start as political stories and not as serious examinations of the health and economic issues at hand. I trust that this panel, led by one of the country’s best health writers, The Boston Globe’s Liz Kowalczyk, will provide a better review of what we can learn from the Massachusetts model. She is joined by Andrew Dreyfus, president and chief executive officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts; Tim Ferris, vice president for Population Health Management at Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners HealthCare; and David Seltz, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission.

Saturday, 10:40 a.m., Will research drive more changes in school sports?

We are continually told that there are only so many things that equipment makers and athletic directors can do to make sports safe. Athletes – kids included – are running around at high speeds, likely to collide, indeed encouraged to collide in some cases. When does the push for safety in sports start to remove the sport from the equation? Kelley Weiss, a terrific reporter with the California Health Care Foundation’s Center for Health Reporting, will lead a panel that includes Mark Hyman, an independent sports journalist in Baltimore; Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; and Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, co-director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Female Athlete Program. Nowinski wrote last year’s documentary Head Games, described the Los Angeles Times critic A.O. Scott as “"A complex, determined look at one of the most pernicious problems facing organized sports on all levels.”

Sunday, 10:40 a.m., How to spot troubled health care workers

When you see a panel title like this, it makes you wonder how in the world anyone could have good advice for something so highly subjective and deeply personal. This panel seems like a pretty good bet for actually having thoughtful things to say. It brings together David Swankin, president and chief executive officer for Citizen Advocacy Center; Dr. Ethan O. Bryson, associate professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine; Tracy Weber, senior reporter at ProPublica; and Patricia Wen, social services reporter at The Boston Globe. Weber, in particular, has a great record of tracking and tracking down troubled health care workers. Here’s how she described one nurse working at a temp agency, in a story she wrote with ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein.

In trouble in her home state of North Carolina, nurse Beverley Cathey saw an opportunity out West. The day after Cathey applied at EZ Staffing in Glendale, she was on the job. She said on her application in July 2007 that she was qualified to work in critical care units, tending to a hospital's sickest patients. It didn't take long before hospitals disagreed.

Cathey "sat at the nurse's station most of the time not doing anything," a supervisor at Northridge Hospital Medical Center complained in August 2007, according to EZ Staffing records reviewed by reporters. "Not up to our standards for ER," wrote a nurse from Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena the following week.

The then-57-year-old nurse gave inaccurate patient information to colleagues and failed to perform an electrocardiogram as ordered for a patient with an abnormally fast heart rate, the records show. In August and September 2007 alone, four hospitals filed six complaints against her, according to the firm's records, including three by Huntington.

The next month EZ Staffing contacted North Carolina's Board of Nursing to check on her license: Cathey, it turned out, was on probation. One condition was that she not work at a staffing agency.

I wish I could attend these talks next week. I hope those of you who are able to attend have a great time, take lots of notes, and use the experience as inspiration for even better journalism.

Image courtesy of Association of Health Care Journalists

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