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Health Journalism 2014: Talks You Shouldn’t Miss at the Denver Conference

Health Journalism 2014: Talks You Shouldn’t Miss at the Denver Conference

Picture of William Heisel

After missing last year’s Association of Health Care Journalists conference, I decided to redouble, even triple my efforts to maximize what is truly one of the best meeting of minds at any time, anywhere. So my team at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation will be taking part in three panel discussions during Health Journalism 2014: “Using data to put local health into context” on Thursday, “Transparent reporting: Investigating in the open” on Friday, and “Big data: What’s in it for us?” on Saturday.

Here’s what else I’ll be making a point to see while I’m there:

“Separating fact from fiction: End-of-life decisions in the United States,” on Thursday at 12:45 p.m.

Talk about an area where there is far too much fiction. That’s to be expected: Thinking about death makes most of us a little uneasy and many of us prone to irrational thinking. Judith Graham has carved out a nice specialty writing about the diseases that affect us late in life, and the hard choices we have to face in the final years, previously at the Chicago Tribune and more recently on the New York Times blog The New Old Age. Alan Meisel founded and directs the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Bioethics and Health Law, and he has been researching and writing clearly and thoughtfully about the end of life for decades. He served on the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1982 and helped write the commission's studies on end-of-life decision-making, work that provides the framing for many of the discussions we’re still having about the end of life three decades later. Mildred Solomon is the chief executive officer at The Hastings Center. She also is one of the foremost experts on the ethical issues surrounding organ donation, an issue that trips up a lot of reporters. (And let me just say that the Hastings Center has four different presentations at Health Journalism this year while IHME has three, which means we may be looking at a Metrics vs. Ethics showdown if anyone brings some hockey sticks and a puck.)

“Plunging into health care: How to master the beat,” on Friday at 10:40 a.m.

Even after writing about health for more than 15 years, I am a sucker for discussions like this. I always feel like there’s more to learn and don’t feel like anyone can truly master a beat as complex and ever changing as health care. Felice J. Freyer at the Providence Journal may get you close, though. Freyer knows how to balance keeping editors satisfied with solid daily stories while exploring larger topics. Over the past month alone she has written about influenza, health insurance costs, and a support group for people who lost someone to a drug overdoseMartha Bebinger, a reporter at WBUR-Boston, writes regularly and effectively about health care costs, and she often makes it personal, including a piece in 2012 where she talked about undergoing an $8,000 MRI scan. Lola Butcher, an independent journalist from Springfield, Mo., has succeeded in making a brand for herself writing for specialty publications such as Oncology Times, Neurology Today, and Modern Healthcare. She has the rare gift of being able to write for a subculture with language clear enough to inform the larger culture. And if you don’t already follow Tony Leys from the Des Moines Register on Twitter, do yourself a favor. He packs a lot in to those short sentences, with ample wit. He recently tweeted, “Looking forward to retirement, when 'Friday afternoon surprises' will involve more beer and fewer bad-news press releases.” Go hear what wisdom he has to impart before he clocks out!

“Spotting conflicts of interest in studies and treatment,” on Saturday at 9 a.m.

This is far harder than it sounds. Don’t assume that the few sentences of disclosures at the end of a journal article will always point you in the right direction. If you are looking for some guides to help orient you, you couldn’t ask for a better group. John Fauber at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel started uncovering conflicts of interest in the pain medicine field when many of us were just waking up to the fact that there was a prescription drug addiction problem in the United States. This year, he wrote a powerful piece that showed “the FDA failed to heed a key piece of research indicating tramadol had the potential to be abused when it first appeared on the U.S. market in 1995.”

Susan Chimonas from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession is one of those experts you have used to have to create a special category for in the Rolodex days. She has a long list of journal articles specifically about the relationships between industry groups, researchers, physicians and policymakers. In a 2010 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, she showed that even when authors in orthopedic journals had received more than $1 million from orthopedic companies, they disclosed those payments less than half the time. 

Paul Levy used to run Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston but now writes insightful pieces about health care for the blog Not Running a Hospital. For those of us who have spent years trying to get straight answers out of health care organizations, Levy’s writing is surprisingly candid as he takes on hospital promotional campaigns, medical errors, and the ethical responsibilities of medical leadership. And who’s running this panel? One of the best health writers in the country, Blythe Bernhard from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In this era where reporters have to worry about their cost-cutting bosses taking out life insurance policies on them, Bernhard fearlessly took on one of journalism’s biggest cash cows: hospital advertising.

Photo by Roger H. Goun via Flickr.

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