Skip to main content.

Complete Health Reporting: Who Can Perform Those Incredible Surgical Feats?

Complete Health Reporting: Who Can Perform Those Incredible Surgical Feats?

Picture of William Heisel

Availability of a drug or procedure is about more than just having an option on the market.

If your readers are in Kenai, Alaska, and Miami, Florida – and unless you are print-only, they are – they will have access to different array of treatments. This is especially true with surgical procedures and devices.

New technologies are often cost prohibitive for many health care markets. Take the da Vinci surgical robot. As Geri Aston explained in Hospitals & Health News:

The investment is a big one. The robot alone costs $1 million to $2 million, the maintenance contract runs around $150,000 annually, and the surgical equipment is more expensive per case. So once the initial investment is made, it makes sense to spread it over several service lines.

A $2 million investment would take a massive bite out of some hospital budgets, as would the annual maintenance fee.

To adopt a new procedure, surgeons need to train. And they need to be able to practice by performing enough procedures to nail down the technique.

For some robot surgeries, surgeons would have to perform between 150 and 220 procedures to learn the ropes, wrote a group of researchers in 2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In smaller communities, there may not be a surgeon with the right specialty to provide a particular service. Even decades-old techniques like liver and kidney transplants are performed by a small number of surgeons. For some organ transplants, patients from Montana – where I’m from – have to travel to Seattle.

This training barrier also is true for different types of screenings.

Here’s how my fellow reviewers at, Andrew Holtz and Dr. Richard Hoffman, characterized a recent story from MSNBC about a screening procedure for prostate cancer.

The story does not discuss availability of this MRI technique. It fails to alert readers that the researchers and authors of editorial comments in the journal warn about the high level of specific training needed. One editorial writer said several steps have to be done just right for this MRI technique to work and that, “There are potential errors in each of these steps.” The story does not give readers an accurate sense of how many hurdles need to be cleared before this sort of MRI technique could be offered in general clinical practice.

With new devices and procedures, you always need to consider the availability of trained personnel to deliver the approach. You always need to consider the learning curve, too.

These can be addressed in just a few words, but they are important context.

Let’s go back to my comic book enthusiast comparison for a minute. For years, fans opined about the possibility of an Incredible Hulk movie. A film first went into development in 1990 but didn’t make it to the screen until more than a decade later. The most hotly debated topic was whether filmmakers had the necessary technology and skill to make a massive green man look at all realistic.

Health writers should ask those types of questions, too, when they are told about a new screening technology or surgical device.

Have your own ideas for complete health reporting? Write me at or via Twitter @wheisel.

Image by Denis Giles via Flickr

Leave A Comment


“Racism in medicine is a national emergency.” That’s how journalist Nicholas St. Fleur characterized the crisis facing American health care this spring, as his team at STAT embarked on “Color Code,” an eight-episode series exploring medical mistrust in communities of color across the country. In this webinar, we’ll take inspiration from their work to discuss strategies and examples for telling stories about inequities, disparities and racism in health care systems. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors to serve as thought leaders in one of the most innovative and rewarding arenas in journalism today – “engaged reporting” that puts the community at the center of the reporting process. Learn more about the positions and apply to join our team.


Follow Us



CHJ Icon