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Rock Solid: Don’t miss these great live acts at AHCJ in Cleveland

Rock Solid: Don’t miss these great live acts at AHCJ in Cleveland

Picture of William Heisel
What enthrallment looks like.

This week’s Health Journalism 2016 conference in Cleveland offers anyone interested in health journalism, health science, or health policy a chance to fill a notebook full of great ideas in just four days.

Here are a few sessions that I would love to see:

Thursday:Science: Breaking down obesity”

Obesity is becoming background noise.

Health journalists have produced so many stories about obesity — especially in the United States — that the coverage is starting to take on the tone of inevitability. As if we were simply writing about people becoming older. What’s the big deal? People age, right? And they put on more pounds, too. Where is the sense of urgency that journalists brought to the rise of the HIV crisis? And where’s the sense of shared opportunity to change course, the way so many journalists write about climate change?

This panel promises to generate a new discussion about what is one of the top health challenges of our day. The problem of weight is connected to what we eat. It connects to a range of diseases and injuries. And it connects to myriad related treatment and management costs. AHCJ has pulled together an excellent panel, including, Dr. Bartolome Burguera, the director of obesity programs at Cleveland Clinic; Carolyn E. Ievers-Landis, associate professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, and Abe Aboraya, a health reporter at WMFE-Orlando.

Burguera told Lara Pullen at Medscape in 2015 that part of the reason obesity remains unchecked is the lack of attention from primary care physicians:

This situation occurs in spite of the recent recognition by the American Medical Association that obesity is a disease. The therapeutic approach to obesity has to overcome the widespread perception that obesity is self-inflicted and simply the result of eating too much and exercising too little.

And why do so many physicians ignore obesity? It’s partly because of the way they are paid. Counseling patients on obesity is not always reimbursed or is reimbursed at a lower rate than other work. Only recently did Medicare start covering obesity counseling by primary care physicians. That topic and more are likely to come up in Friday’s great session on health reform.

Friday: “The Health Law at 6: Still Having Growing Pains”

Did you do a double take when you saw that title? The Affordable Care Act was passed six years ago? The cognitive dissonance may be tied to the fact that health reform in your state has been sluggish or non-existent. Washington state, where I live, ushered in Obamacare’s reforms early on, and reporters will be fortunate to hear from Nathan Johnson, chief policy officer for the Washington State Health Care Authority. Johnson knows his stuff and has both the insider’s view and the ability to speak in clear terms to people at varying levels of expertise. He’ll be joined by Trish Riley, executive director at the National Academy for State Health Policy; Brian Rosman, government relations and policy director at Health Care For All; and Joanne Kenen, health care editor for Politico.

Back in December 2013, Kenen wrote one of the smartest pieces about the ACA to date. It’s part cautionary note, part prognostication:

You’ll often hear that the administration wants 7 million in the exchanges and another 8 or 9 million in Medicaid. That has in fact become the goal, but it wasn’t always a magic number needed to make enrollment a “success” and the risk pool healthy. It started as an educated enrollment guess by the Congressional Budget Office, calculating what the government costs would be the first year.

Those numbers have been surpassed in the two years since, but Kenen’s coverage has remained essential reading. Reporters and modern lovers of health policy have benefited from Kenen’s leadership in this area for years, and I’m certain she will tease out more unwritten stories at this panel.

Saturday: “Hepatitis C and Beyond: A Far Reaching Story”

Health care coverage has a huge role to play in disease trends. If a disease is well recognized and reimbursements are high for treatment, there’s already a better chance that it will be diagnosed, treated, and controlled. But if a disease lingers in the shadows, perhaps because it is poorly understood, then it can sow an incredible amount of pain and premature death.

Hepatitis C is this latter type of disease. What does it feel like to have hepatitis C? For most people, it feels like nothing at all. That’s what makes it all the more insidious. You can be totally infectious and not know it. Your liver can be under siege, and you don’t know it. The number of infected people has been climbing, and the cost to treat the disease has been climbing, too. One of the best health reporters in the business, Felice Freyer of the Boston Globe, will lead an excellent panel that includes Sarah K. Emond, chief operating officer for the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review; Robert Greenwald, the director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School; and Dr. Melissa K. Osborn, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Greenwald co-authored a study that showed the huge holes in insurance coverage for those infected with hepatitis C. In a news release in 2015, Greenwald said:

Ultimately, we found that access restrictions are not based on scientific evidence, current treatment guidelines or clinical data … Notably, 74% of the 42 state Medicaid programs for which information is available limit treatment to individuals with advanced fibrosis or cirrhosis.

Saturday: “Taking hospital quality coverage to the next level”

You might think that you understand what makes a good hospital. Believe me, Charlie Ornstein can spot a good one — and a bad one — from a mile away. While a motley crew of local reporters have written puff pieces for their local health centers, Ornstein has built an award-studded career documenting the critical components of care. And one of the best things about Ornstein is his fearlessness in representing the facts. If you have not read it before, check out his Twitter debate with Mark Cuban over blood tests. You may also have seen him on television from time to time.

Joining Ornstein in this discussion will be Dr. Jose Figueroa, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Figueroa has been a careful watcher of hospital quality indicators and will no doubt have much to say about the best ways to measure your local system. In August, he told Molly Walker at MedPage Today:

What is clear, in my opinion, is that hospital readmission rates are a good way to promote accountability in health care. As we know, our healthcare system is very fragmented, and in the past, there was very little accountability of patients' care once they left the hospital doors. Additionally, prior to the readmission penalty, there was little incentive for hospitals to invest in strategies/interventions to help prevent readmissions (since their business model is taking care of hospitalized patients).

I won’t be able to make it this year, although a group of my colleagues will be talking about the problem of maternal and infant mortality in the U.S. on Thursday.

Also, as a music obsessive, I had to throw in a few band names in this post, as the conference is taking place in the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Tweet @wheisel if you see any bands you feel are unfairly missing from the hall, chief among them being Moby Grape, which is simply impossible to hide in a sentence!

[Photo by pdjohnson via Flickr.]

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