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Health Journalism 2015: Talks you shouldn’t miss at the Santa Clara conference

Health Journalism 2015: Talks you shouldn’t miss at the Santa Clara conference

Picture of William Heisel

It’s impossible to attend all the great talks at this year’s Association of Health Care Journalists conference. One has to make choices.

As part of my day job, my team at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is co-sponsoring the event again this year, and we will be part of two sessions, including one of the release of alcohol trends for every county in the United States by Professor Ali Mokdad on Thursday at 3:15 p.m.

Here’s what else is making me want to clone myself during the conference:

‘Ebola and Ebolanoia: Covering outbreaks responsibly,’ on Friday at 9:10 a.m.

Any panel moderated by things-that-can-kill-you expert Maryn McKenna is worth attending. In her blogs for Wired and National Geographic, McKenna has written some great pieces recently on our preparedness for an outbreak like Ebola, antibiotic resistance, and salmonella in pet chickens. McKenna always finds interesting ways to draw the best story ideas out of panelists. And she will have a tremendous group with her this time. Dr. Michele Barry runs the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University. She recently argued for a “Global Health Workforce Reserve” in the Los Angeles Times:

The world needs a new approach to solving massive international health crises and preventing future ones. Taking as our model the U.S. military reserve forces, we propose the formation of a Global Health Workforce Reserve, in which trained physicians and nurses with experience in low-resource settings enlist for a period of time. By joining the reserves, they would agree to be deployed when needed for epidemics and catastrophic events. Such a corps could be scaled up quickly and would be centrally managed by WHO or the United Nations.

Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, knows a lot about drug resistance, and has been sounding the alarm about the bacteria Clostridium difficile. According to CDC accounts, the bacteria infected more than 500,000 Americans in 2011, killing 29,000 within a month of diagnosis.

The Canadian Press has long benefited from the health knowledge and writing talents of Helen Branswell. Her Twitter page alone is a daily education in disease outbreaks globally and the efforts to combat them. Branswell teamed with Science’s Martin Enserink to develop an invaluable online course on Ebola for the World Federation of Science Journalists, including history, tips, and webinars

And Tara Smith, associate professor at the Kent State University College of Public Health, has published extensively on MRSA. She wrote recently on the Aetiology blog about how a measles outbreak should scare us just as much as Ebola.

‘Localizing Medicare and Medicaid: Data, experts and shoe leather,on Friday at 4:20 p.m.

Trudy Lieberman, the former president of AHCJ and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, will lead a great discussion about the wealth of information reporters can gather from Medicare and Medicaid data.

I have been pointing people to ProPublica’s great work with federal health care data on nursing homes recently in my Well Sourced series. You can hear from one of the chief architects of that work, Charles Ornstein, who will undoubtedly walk people through all the ways they can make sense of millions of data points. Ornstein was interviewed by Dr. Robert Wachter, the editor of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality WebM&M site. He said:

There's a fundamental distinction between the role of the media and the role of accreditors and regulators. In many ways, organizations like The Joint Commission and state regulators are interested in trying to work as collaboratively as possible, not to punish but to prevent things from happening in the future. There's a view that they need to work together. It's not the role of the media to necessarily ‘work together’ with you to improve your care. It's the role of the media to spotlight if there's a problem and to ensure that you actually do fix that problem. And it's the role of the media to spotlight those organizations that do it right.

Ornstein will be joined by two health reporting pros. Politico reporter David Pittman left MedPage Today in 2014. While he was there, Pittman reported on disparities in Medicare payments between male and female physicians, top reasons internists are sued, and the state of health across the U.S. before Obamacare.

And Fred Schulte, now a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, wrote for years at The Baltimore Sun and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. I have followed Schutle’s work since my early days on the health beat and learned a ton from him. Last year, he led the reporting on a powerful series of stories called the “Medicare Advantage Money Grab.” He wrote:

The Center for Public Integrity’s yearlong investigation of the Medicare Advantage industry found that federal officials over the past decade have missed multiple opportunities to corral tens of billions of dollars in overcharges and other billing errors tied to a complex payment formula known as a ‘risk score.’ Health plans collect medical data that is used to compute the health risks for each patient enrolled, but there’s been little to deter plans from jacking up the resulting ‘risk scores.’ When risk scores overstate a patient’s illness, the plans make more money from Medicare. There’s little chance patients or the public will find out when this happens because federal officials have kept most audit results confidential.

‘The health care business beat in a post-ACA world,on Saturday at 4:40 p.m.

Len Bruzesse and his team at AHCJ are smart. They know that at about 3 p.m. on a Saturday, reporters might start to think about where a good happy hour is happening instead of sticking around for more sessions. So they loaded this one up with four of the best health reporters in the business. And they are going to be talking about the business side of health care.

Merrill Goozner, Modern Healthcare’s editor, knows more about the financial side of the health world than most of us could hope to learn. That’s why he is able to show how seemingly small nuances in policy changes could actually amount to truckloads of dollars moving in a different direction. He did a nice job recently of flagging a move by Congress to give medical specialty boards special status in the overhaul of the Medicare’s sustainable growth rate (SGR) program.

Anna Wilde Matthews, a must-read health reporter at The Wall Street Journal, has a similar eye for the health dollar details. She and colleagues recently reported on how long-term care hospitals tend to discharge patients at the point when they can maximize Medicare reimbursements. The team wrote:

Under Medicare rules, long-term acute-care hospitals like Kindred’s typically receive smaller payments for what is considered a short stay, until a patient hits a threshold. After that threshold, payment jumps to a lump sum meant to cover the full course of long-term treatment. That leaves a narrow window of maximum profitability in caring for patients at the nation’s 435 long-term hospitals, which specialize in treating people with serious conditions who require prolonged care. General hospitals are paid under different rules. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that many long-term-hospital companies discharge a disproportionate share of patients during that window when hospitals stand to make the most, a sign that financial incentives in the Medicare system may shape patient care.

Chad Terhune worked at The Wall Street Journal and Businessweek before joining The Los Angeles Times. Since joining The Times, Terhune has broken some big news. In February, he revealed that patients at one of Los Angeles’ biggest hospitals were infected with the drug-resistant CRE bacteria. He wrote:

Nearly 180 patients at UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center may have been exposed to potentially deadly bacteria from contaminated medical scopes, and two deaths have already been linked to the outbreak. The Times has learned that the two people who died are among seven patients that UCLA found were infected by the drug-resistant superbug known as CRE — a number that may grow as more patients get tested. The outbreak is the latest in a string of similar incidents across the country that has top health officials scrambling for a solution.

Phil Galewitz, a senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, has a depth of knowledge that should cut across all of these reporters’ key areas. I wrote recently about how Galewitz has been a leader for years in writing about patient dumping. In November 2014, Galewitz wrote an important piece about a Medicare benefit aimed at curbing the obesity epidemic that, so far, is failing. He wrote:

Officials estimated that about 30 percent of seniors are obese and therefore eligible for counseling services, which studies have shown improve the odds of significant weight loss. But less than 1 percent of Medicare’s 50 million beneficiaries have used the benefit so far. Experts blame the government’s failure to promote the program, rules that limit where and when patients can go for counseling as well as the low fees for providers.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you all to head over to Pedro’s Restaurant and Cantina at 6:30 p.m. on Friday for drinks with the Reporting on Health contingent, who will be at the conference. I’ll be there with my team, too.

Photo by Media Evolution via Flickr.


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