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Favorite Health Journalism of 2011: Big Money, Smog and a Diagnosis Epidemic

Favorite Health Journalism of 2011: Big Money, Smog and a Diagnosis Epidemic

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This week and next, Antidote blogger William Heisel and I are sharing our favorite health journalism of 2011. You can find Antidote's favorites here. Below, you'll find the first batch of my favorites, in no particular order, with the next five coming next week. Happy 2012, everyone!

1. For Central Valley Families, Air Quality Info Can be Confusing, Hard to Find, Sasha Khokha, KQED, November

I was so taken by KQED public radio journalist Sasha Khokha's account of how families and schools cope with air pollution in California's agricultural Central Valley that I interviewed her about how she reported the story. Here's how she framed the issue:

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the nation's smoggiest regions and -- not surprisingly -- home to some of the highest childhood asthma rates. But for parents, it can be hard to know when it's safe for their kids to play outside. Air quality activists say that's because local regulators don't issue effective public health warnings.

Khokha, a former California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow, found that the warnings were confusing and didn't tell parents when it was unhealthful for their children to play outside. And some schools still held practices and games on high-pollution days because of the way they measured pollution levels.

A day after Khokha's story aired, the local air quality district changed its pollution warnings to focus on what people could do to protect their own health. The district also is trying to make its air quality monitoring data more understandable and accessible to the public. This is truly health reporting in the public interest.

2. Abused and Used, Danny Hakim and others, New York Times, 2011

The New York Times' long-running examination of how the state's developmentally disabled are treated in group care homes continued to be just as heartbreaking and important as it was in 2010. This year's stories, led by reporter Danny Hakim, probed unnatural deaths at group homes to overprescribing of powerful drugs to misuse of taxpayer dollars. The reporters on the series traced how money is spent on care for the disabled and found jaw-dropping salaries and unnecessary surpluses.

3. Discovering Autism, Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times, December

In a four-part series, reporter Alan Zarembo examined the 20-fold growth in autism cases since the 1980s and found evidence that the so-called "epidemic" of autism is really more an epidemic of increased diagnoses than an actual increase in cases:

The increase has stirred fears of an epidemic and mobilized researchers to figure out what causes the brain disorder and why it appears to be affecting so many more children.

Two decades into the boom, however, the balance of evidence suggests that it is more a surge in diagnosis than in disease.

Factors that have nothing to do with biology can explain much of the steep increase in cases around the world: an expanded definition of autism, spreading awareness of the disorder and an improved ability to distinguish it from other conditions.

Zarembo examined the fallout of the increased diagnoses for parents, who must navigate school, medical and government bureaucracies to get treatment for their children, and taxpayers, who must foot some of the bills.

4. Code Green: Bleeding Dollars, Andrew Conte and Luis Fabregas, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 2011

This months-long series examined four leading causes of rising health care costs: hospital readmissions, aggressive end-of-life care, regional variations in costs for the same health procedures, and a hospital spending boom. I was impressed by the ambition of the series in educating the public about some pretty wonky health policy topics, its national focus (the reporters compared Pennsylvania's experience to other states'), and an accessible interactive graphic detailing the series' findings.

5. Building Ambitions: The Big Money World Of Kids Care, Gilbert Gaul, Kaiser Health News/McClatchy, September

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul teamed with Kaiser Health News and McClatchy for this data-driven series on

From their humble origins more than a century ago, many of the nation's biggest and best known children's hospitals today are health care juggernauts with sprawling medical centers and suburban satellites, extensive real estate holdings and thousands of well-paid employees and millionaire CEOs

While children's hospitals represent a small slice of the nation's health care bill, they offer a case study of the expansive ambitions of hospital leaders and the faltering efforts of government to control spiraling costs.

Gaul painted a devastating picture of children's hospitals and their well-paid executives engaging in "prestige wars" of new medical equipment and superstar doctors, contributing to unnecessarily high health care costs even as they provided high quality care for the nation's sickest children. Then he turned to a grimmer future as children's hospitals face an uncertain future amid health reform and state cutbacks in Medicaid.

Related Posts:

Antidote: Hoaxes, Hospitals and High Schools: My Favorite Health Stories of 2011

Photo credit: Biscarotte via Flickr

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