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Pistols, Profits and Poster Children: Favorite Health Stories

Pistols, Profits and Poster Children: Favorite Health Stories

Picture of William Heisel

Here are some of my favorite health stories of 2012. It was once again difficult to whittle the list down to just a few, another great reminder of all the good work being done by health writers around the world.

Tackling gun violence, one block at a time, in New York, Sarika Bansal, The Guardian

Three months before the horrible shooting in Newtown, Bansal wrote about a community program in New York aimed at treating violence as a public health problem. She helped produce a five-minute video that captures more about the violence that kills people every day than the stacks of news stories that pile up around events like the Newtown massacre. "Violence is a disease," Rhea Morris, deputy director of nursing in the emergency department at Harlem Hospital Center, told Bansal. "It's not only a clinical disease, it's a social disease."  Bansal wrote:

These individual incidents, often in poorer urban neighborhoods, are generally overshadowed by more sensational mass shootings in city centers or suburbs. In absolute numbers, however, they are the real mass shootings – forming the vast majority of fatal gun violence cases.

The finer points of the second amendment and the gun control debate are remote from these areas, and policing methods like "stop-and-frisk" have provided no lasting solution, so several communities have started organizing themselves to prevent gun violence in their neighborhoods. One such, a non-profit organization named Snug ("guns" spelled backwards), works to reduce gun violence in a 72-block section of central Harlem, in upper Manhattan. The area, which contains three housing project buildings and approximately 60 gangs, has long been a hotbed for violent crime. Snug mediates conflict among "high-risk youth", helps young people find employment, and when necessary, intervenes in violent situations.

What happened to the poster children of OxyContin?, John Fauber and Ellen Gabler, The Journal Sentinel

As part of the Side Effects series, Faber and Gabler produced a video for a great piece on some of the patients used to promote OxyContin when it first was introduced in the 1990s. The idea for the story is a stroke of genius, and the execution is wonderful. They wrote:

The subjects who spoke glowingly of their experiences with OxyContin in the video 14 years ago offer a case history of sorts.

Two of the seven patients were active opioid abusers when they died. A third became addicted, suffered greatly, and quit after realizing she was headed for an overdose. Three patients still say the drug helped them cope with their pain and improved their quality of life. A seventh patient declined to answer questions.

The doctor who enlisted his patients for the video and played a starring role, now says some of the statements went too far. In the video, Alan Spanos, a pain specialist in North Carolina - a paid speaker for Purdue Pharma at the time - urged doctors to consider prescribing opioids more often.

He says now the point of the video was to explain that some patients could take opioids and not turn into "classic drug addicts." But it was unclear then, and remains unclear now, what percentage of chronic pain patients benefit from the drugs.

In addition, they created a nice interactive timeline that provides a quick education on the drug, its role in the country’s painkiller addiction epidemic, and the Journal Sentinel series.

Despite tax breaks, some NC hospitals deny care to poor, Joseph Neff, Ames Alexander and Karen Garloch, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer

There are many reasons to sing the praises of the Prognosis Profits series. Thorough reporting. Careful storytelling. Fearless coverage in the face of a powerful lobby known for getting its way. I call this story out mainly because it is a great blueprint for reporters who have nonprofit hospitals in their coverage area. They wrote:

In 2007, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee proposed requiring nonprofit hospitals to spend at least 5 percent of their budgets on charity care – a standard that only about a fifth of North Carolina’s hospitals met in 2010. That proposal never became law. No group or agency compiles national statistics on what hospitals spend on charity care. But North Carolina hospitals appear to be providing less charity care than those in Texas, one of the few states that require hospitals to meet a minimum level of care for the poor.

In Texas, most hospitals spend more than 4 percent of their budgets on charity care; in North Carolina, most spend less than 3 percent. North Carolina hospitals provide more charity care, on average, than those in California. California’s hospitals operate on significantly smaller profit margins.

I’ll share some more of my favorites on Friday. If you have stories you loved this year, drop a note below, send me a message at or ping me on Twitter @wheisel.

Image by Jenni Douglas via Flickr

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