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Well Sourced: Head to court to find smoking guns for your health story

Well Sourced: Head to court to find smoking guns for your health story

Picture of William Heisel
Lady justice can be a health reporter's best friend.
Lady justice can be a health reporter's best friend.

Get out of the office.

I say it almost every time I speak to a group of reporters. (I have to hedge a bit here to avoid the fate of Brian Williams.)

Get out of the office.

And my top pick for where reporters should go when they leave the office is not a hospital. Not a doctor’s office. Not even the county vital records agency.

It’s the courthouse. Chances are good that if you are covering a health care entity with any sort of business history, it also has a court history.

SOURCE: State district courts

WHAT IT DOES: Provide reporters with a rich source of medical records, sworn testimony from doctors and hospital officials and, sometimes, photos, audio and video.

WHAT IT DOES NOT DO: Distinguish between sound lawsuits and frivolous ones. Make it easy for you to understand quickly which side is winning.

RECORDS: Go to the courthouse. Ask a clerk for a printout of the instructions for what may be the most complicated search engine you have ever seen. Search for the hospital, physician group, health insurance company, or doctor in question. Jot down all the case numbers that look interesting. Ask for the files. When you get the files, look for patient names, addresses and phone numbers. Look for other doctors who can provide more information. They are often included as expert witnesses or co-defendants. Look for patterns of behavior. Is this doctor being repeatedly accused of misreading X-rays? Does he seem to have an unusual number of patients claiming he stole their money?

Read the entire file if it’s under 50 pages. If it’s not, skim it so you can at least understand the arc of the case. Pay special attention to claims that are made against the defendant early in the case that may be disputed by the defendant or thrown out by the court later in the case.

Now, someone is about to email me and say, “But you can do all this online!” And, if you really fear the sun and love that office air, then start with a database search in Nexis or another database that includes court records. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area like Los Angeles, most of the court records are online. So you can go straight to the court’s website. But, you’re lucky and live in Los Angeles, so why not just walk to the courthouse?  

And here’s the other thing. If you are only looking at records online, you are likely to miss the photos, documents, and videos that sometimes find their way into court files. I’ve seen them all and encourage you to actually go to the courthouse and see for yourself.

DRAWBACKS: Lawsuits are not reason alone to write off a doctor. Check with the different medical societies to find out the average number of suits. For example, ob-gyns are sued more often than other specialties. What’s average? That has to do with what is to be expected with a certain type of physician performing certain procedures.

SUGGESTION: Even if a case has been dismissed by the court, settled or the records destroyed, check with the attorneys for both sides. They likely are holding on to records that could be valuable.

EXAMPLE: In July 2008, Patricia Wen at The Boston Globe made good use of court records in documenting a serious child abuse case that local authorities had missed. And it’s not just big projects that benefit from court records. L.L. Brasier at the Detroit Free Press stayed on top of the measles outbreak news by using court records this month to write about a family that had refused to vaccinate their kids. She wrote:

Court records show a deeply troubled family. Their first child, now 10, was born with drugs in her system. The pair was arrested in 2007, with the children in the car, along with marijuana, a crack pipe and drug paraphernalia. Authorities have removed the children from the home on several occasions because of ongoing drug use and domestic violence in front of the children, and both parents have spent time in jail.

Those are the type of eye-popping details you can find just by getting out of your office and heading to the courthouse.

Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr.

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