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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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Because of the intense media swarm around Michael Jackson’s death, it might have seemed inevitable that the physician who administered the fatal dose of anesthesia to the pop singer would be charged with a crime.

But there’s a reason Dr. Conrad Murray was not formally accused of anything until nearly eight months after Jackson’s death. Doctors who screw up are rarely charged with crimes, unless they have committed insurance fraud.

Mostly, this makes sense.

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When the FDA seized 77 ozone generators from Applied Ozone Systems in Auburn, California recently, it was a reminder to health writers to ask tough questions about unproven medical techniques being touted as miracle cures.

Here are five musts for stories about ozone therapy and similar treatments.

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Scott Reuben, a Massachusetts anesthesiologist, had landed a job as the chief of acute pain at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. He also had published dozens of papers in academic journals touting the benefits of painkillers made by drug giants Pfizer and Merck.

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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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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.

Because of the press of healthcare news on March 24, the original deadline for applying for our  all-expenses-paid 2017 National Fellowship, we have extended the deadline to Monday, March 27.  The Felllowship offers 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. 

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