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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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The doctor did it. In the bedroom. With an an anesthetic.

The Los Angeles County Coroner spent 51 pages of minute calculations and detailed examinations to come to that simple conclusion on Aug. 24, 2009. Jackson had died from a lethal dose of propofol and other drugs and the death was a homicide.

This was perhaps the most surprising thing about the Michael Jackson case, because coroners are so reluctant to say a physician killed someone.

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The readers of the Lancaster (Penn.) New Era had ample reason to be doubtful of the new doctor who had come to town being touted as “the infant whisperer.”

The New Era wrote a classic, glowing profile, quoting patients who said Dr. Saroj K. Parida, chief of neonatology at Lancaster Regional Medical Center, had saved their children’s lives. And perhaps he had.

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Far fewer people would know Dr. Conrad Murray’s name if Michael Jackson had died in a hospital.

Not only would Murray have people with similar training around to corroborate his story, but he would have entered the secretive peer review system.

Doctors have the power to conduct “peer reviews” at hospitals that could lead to a doctor losing his privileges to perform surgeries, see patients and otherwise practice medicine there. In the best case scenario, physicians police their own and take stern – albeit secretive – action.

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Here’s where you have to pity Dr. Conrad Murray, regardless of whether you think he’s guilty.

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The doctors responsible for the safe delivery of millions of babies over the past two and a half centuries may have been serial killers.

Some of the more cynical followers of Doctors Behaving Badly may not find this hard to believe, but it has caused quite a stir in Britain, where William Hunter and William Smellie created the science underlying modern day obstetrics. As Denis Campbell in the London Observer notes:

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It was bad enough for Dr. Conrad Murray to be giving Michael Jackson propofol when he had no training administering anesthetics. His second mistake was using a dangerous drug in an improper setting: a bedroom.

Here was Murray’s surgical suite, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s report:

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Dr. Conrad Murray made his first mistake when he signed on to be Michael Jackson’s personal physician.

Perhaps the task was doomed for any doctor, but Murray was particularly ill equipped to deal with the King of Pop’s concoction of quirks and cravings. Murray was operating well outside of his training, and this gives prosecutors their first plank in building a motive. Murray didn’t care about Jackson as a patient, they will say. He only wanted that $1.5 million pay check.

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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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