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Things I Learned at Health Journalism 2014, Part 2

Things I Learned at Health Journalism 2014, Part 2

Picture of William Heisel
Hilda Bastian talks to AHCJ attendees. (Photo courtesy AHCJ)

For the first part of Heisel’s series on AHCJ insights, click here.

How many times have we been promised the world was about to change with the advent of a new product or treatment?

Gene therapy. Stem cells. Surgical robots. The list goes on.

Hilda Bastian, the PubMed Health and PubMed Commons editor, uses a vivid image to describe how we should approach big claims in health science. Hers is the first in my last set of tips from Health Journalism, the annual conference for the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Remember that in medicine, there are no Incredible Hulks. The reason health experts are worried that there are few new antibiotics in the works is because science is a slow process. You shouldn’t expect a health advance to blow existing methods and treatments out of the way and leave behind an undisputed leader or new model.

This came through in many sessions. Sarah Greene, a senior program officer with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, told a crowd of reporters eager to tap into the “big data” that has been promised for years that they should be patient.

“If it were easy to make great uses of big data, it would have been done already,” Greene said. That’s why massive amounts of health data remain trapped in books and filing cabinets.

The Hulk reference comes straight from Bastian at PubMed Health, who draws and blogs at Statistically funny.

“Rarely is a study so overwhelming in itself that it blasts everything else out of its path,” Bastian said.

She told me after her session that reporters shouldn’t wait for a health Hulk. Instead, they should pay attention to how incremental advances – and studies that question the evidence for some of those advances – and assess how the evidence is stacking.

As she told me, “The thing about the Hulk is, he’s not always on the side of good. Sometimes he’s very bad.”

And that can be true when reporters write about the biggest, best, most game-changing new study only to have to report to readers later that it wasn’t really a game changer at all.

“A promising treatment is the larval stage of a disappointing one,” Bastian said.

Or, to keep the comic book theme going, the Incredible Hulk could turn out to be Ambush Bug.

Fail. Learn. Much of Health Journalism features people talking about past successes. (My own talk about  Reporting on Health’s Just One Breath project was largely about how successful the project was.) Emily Bazar talked a lot about how her Ask Emily columns and forums have helped educate thousands (millions?) about the Affordable Care Act.

But she also talked about things she tried that fell short.

She described how a community meeting in Modesto drew a large crowd but a later meeting in Riverside made her consider asking her parents to come to boost attendance. She said that she had good luck getting her column into news outlets around the state but little traction when she created a Facebook page.

One of the biggest strengths of her project grew out of a problem she initially didn’t know how to fix: the lack of mental bandwidth to respond to the flood of questions prompted by the Affordable Care Act.

She realized that if she put together all of those Emily “asks” into an email list and sent them all regular responses, even if she didn’t answer every single question individually she could build her audience and her audience loyalty by keeping in constant contact. (And she uses Constant Contact to manage the 800-plus email list, too.)

Be a health journalism cheerleader. I’ve been attending the Association of Health Care Journalists conference with some regularity nearly from the beginning, and it has gone through two distinct phases.

1. Infectious optimism as the membership was growing and conference attendees were enjoying the benefits of networking and knowledge sharing.

2. Pervasive pessimism as the newspaper industry was imploding and some attendees literally had to “X” out the outlet on their badges, having lost their job after they registered for the conference.

And now there’s a new phase: future-focused enthusiasm.

I saw more freelancers this year than ever before – not an exact count, just an impression – but most of the freelancers I talked with were finding work or, as I do, using freelance as something fun in addition to a day job.

I also saw larger contingents from the nonprofit and academic journalism outfits, like Kaiser Health News, the Center for Health Reporting, and ProPublica.

“It’s an exciting time to be in health journalism,” said Anna Gorman, who recently left the Los Angeles Times for Kaiser Health News. “Especially now with all of the interest in the Affordable Care Act, all eyes are on health.”

Other veterans of previous conferences, including the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Luis Fabregas and Kaiser’s Julie Appleby, agreed that the mood is generally up.

This is good news for health consumers. Why? Because this is a powerful concentration of journalistic talent, and if these health reporters keep writing thoughtful and thought-provoking stories, we all will have better guidance for our health decisions.

And here’s a compliment I wanted to pass along to all of you conference speakers and attendees. I heard from many non-journalists about how struck they were by the level of sophistication in the presentations and the discussions.

One example: Preeti Malani, a clinician, researcher, and the media relations lead for the JAMA Network, has seen the world for years from the researcher side. This was her first Health Journalism conference, and she said she came away much better informed.

“I heard Liz Szabo speaking about breast cancer, and I was really impressed with her depth of knowledge,” Malani said. “I learned a lot at the conference.” 

Photo courtesy AHCJ

More Stories:

Things I Learned at Health Journalism 2014, Part 1

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

Tips for Covering Long Term Care


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