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Coachella for Health Writers: AHCJ 2012 Conference Will Rock Atlanta

Coachella for Health Writers: AHCJ 2012 Conference Will Rock Atlanta

Picture of William Heisel

coachella, william heisel, health journalism, reporting on health, AHCJ

I missed Coachella Live once again and cringed as I read post after post about bands I've wanted to see for years.

But guess what? Health writers have their own Coachella this week with the Association of Health Care Journalists Health Journalism 2012 conference in Atlanta.

Coachella had the dry wit of St. Vincent? AHCJ has the dry wit of Scott Hensley.

Coachella had the disturbing clairvoyance of At The Drive-In? AHCJ has the disturbing clairvoyance of Maryn McKenna.

Coachella had the culture-critiquing frenzy of Girl Talk. AHCJ has the culture-critiquing frenzy of Gary Schwitzer.

There are so many "don't miss" panels at AHCJ 2012 that I wish I could be in multiple places at once. (If you want to say hello, I'll be part of the team from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) releasing the new county-by-county life expectancy numbers at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in Capitol South.)

Usually, when I'm trying to decide which panel to attend, I ask two questions:

1. Why is this panel discussion important right now?

2. How will it help reporters write better stories?

So I asked some of AHCJ's luminaries those questions. Here's what they had to say.

Ivan Oransky, Reuters Health

Panel: Evaluating medical evidence for journalists, 10 a.m., Thursday, Capitol South

Panel: From story ideas to sources: Finding hidden gems in PubMed, 9 a.m., Sunday, Capitol Center

At a time when it is still apparently an open question whether reporters should read the papers that they're covering, we want to remind members that relying only on press releases is fraught with danger. Medical studies can be intimidating, however, and we want to give reporters the tools to understand them, and to navigate the world of medical experts to find informed, evidence-based opinions.

In the medical evidence workshop, Gary Schwitzer, of, and I will walk through evaluating how good evidence really is, everything from the pitfalls of reporting from scientific conferences to where to find costs of drugs and procedures.

In the PubMed session, the National Library of Medicine's Rob Logan and I will show reporters how to best use Medline - the government-run database of millions of study abstracts -- and other resources at PubMed to put findings in context. And I'll demonstrate how Medline can even be used to uncover fraudsters whose identity national agencies are trying to keep hidden.

Christina Jewett, California Watch

Panel: The working journalist's guide to using FOI laws, 12:30 p.m., Capitol South

Tapping into the wealth of interesting and revelatory information held by your local, state and federal government can mean the difference between average stories and great ones. All eyes are on the health care now more than ever, so great health reporting will be recognized.

I plan to talk about inspection reports that every health beat reporter should be reviewing on a regular basis, how to background a local health provider and real-life examples of how documents obtained through records requests made a story pop. I'll talk about strategies to get the information you're seeking. And I'll highlight some off-the-beaten-track resources that have led to great scoops.

I began to favor the health beat over covering crime after a homicide in Sacramento psychiatric hospital. I'll talk about how basic beat reporting, bolstered by public hospital inspection accounts, led to great stories while I was a reporter at the Sacramento Bee.

While working at ProPublica, I filed public records requests in numerous states, uncovering a psychiatrist who was one of the most prolific prescribers in the U.S. Requests made on that project also uncovered accounts of his patients suffering serious side effects, shaking, hallucinating and developing uncontrollable tics. Records requests also led me to a now-retired detective who commented on record that he'd take up the case against Dr. Michael Reinstein again, for free. Stories like this have made me a believer in seeking paper trails on every major project.

And Felice J. Freyer from the Providence Journal, who is moderating the panel, added:

As newsrooms shrink, time-pressed reporters might see the task of gathering documents as too daunting and time-consuming. Our workshop will demonstrate that's not the case. The speakers will demystify public records with practical advice and show that great health-care stories based on public records are not only possible, but necessary.

This hands-on workshop will explain what records are available, how to get them and what to do when you encounter roadblocks. Equally as important, it will inspire ideas for new ways to cover the health care beat.

Noam Levey, The Los Angeles Times

Panel: Seeing through the rhetoric in health reform debates, 10:40 a.m., Friday, Capital North

With health care reemerging as a potentially decisive issue in the 2012 elections, we're going to take a real nuts and bolts look at how to get past the overblown rhetoric and the political spin and report solid stories about what is actually going on in two of the most important, and politically explosive areas of healthcare - entitlement reform and the future of employer-provided health insurance.

We have a really great panel, including John Rother, who has been working on Medicare issues in Washington for three decades, and Mike Brewer, an executive with benefits consulting firm Lockton, which works with hundreds of companies on designing their benefits and knows intimately how employers are thinking about healthcare and health reform. Both are going to provide a list of myths to be on the lookout for and suggest some underreported stories that need attention this political season.

Lisa Zamosky, Health 411 column, Los Angeles Times

Panel: Having a social media presence, 9 a.m., Saturday, Atlanta 4

I think even those reluctant to use social media realize at this point that they can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. Social media can be particularly useful for freelancers, but getting involved also means working through a learning curve, and spending time that is very difficult to schedule as a one-man or woman operation.

Freelancers are looking for information about where they need to be online and how to use social media to build a professional platform and to enhance their work. But they also need help figuring out how to get involved without losing hours of each work day to Twitter.

The panel discussion will, among other things, address how journalists can use social media to tap into breaking news, trends and conversations happening on line, as well as how to use the different sites to find sources and uncover story ideas.

And it's a great panel. Scott Hensley, NPR's Shots blog writer and editor, Maryn McKenna, who is a freelance journalist, a columnist for Scientific American and blogger for Wired, and Serena Marshall, a freelancer who works as a digital journalist with ABC News - all have a ton of social media experience to share with journalists. I think freelancers will gain a lot of good information and solid tips about how to put social media to good use.

Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

Panel: Handling the explosion of hospital quality data, 9 a.m., Sunday, Capitol North

There has been a proliferation of hospital rating websites, and every year brings more data. We're at a point that reporters need to begin prioritizing what's meaningful and what isn't. Ashish Jha of Harvard is amazing. Together, we hope to show examples of what's new, what's important and how to cover persistently bad or good hospitals.

Using data to flag hospitals in your community is important, but it is only part of your reporting job. Validating the data, getting expert commentary and finding patient stories will help round out these stories--and make them resonate.

I'll be tweeting frequently from AHCJ, @wheisel and using #AHCJ12.

Photo credit: via Flickr


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