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Five Things I Learned At AHCJ's 2012 Health Journalism Conference

Five Things I Learned At AHCJ's 2012 Health Journalism Conference

Picture of William Heisel

ahcj 2012, william heisel, health journalism, reporting on health

I must have told about 100 people at the Association of Health Care Journalists 2012 conference in Atlanta the same thing: "Best conference since Houston."

Every AHCJ regular has their favorite conference, but the 2006 meeting in Houston has long been my favorite. Until now. Atlanta had it all: super-talented reporters sharing step-by-step guides in how to replicate their success. Top clinicians and researchers explaining leading edge research with just the right mix of scientific specificity and plain speak. And ample opportunity to do the most important thing about these conferences: share, debate, and challenge each other.

It was very tough to pick just five things I learned, but these five cover the full scope of the conference as I saw it.

1. Spend more time in court. John Diedrich at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described his "eureka moment" when reporting on bacteria-infected disposable wipes. He used the federal Pacer website to look for lawsuits against Rockline Industries and ran across an age discrimination case by a former employee from the company's Arkansas factory. He considered skipping it over as it seemed unrelated to his central question. When he opened it, though, he found many of the primary documents that would underpin his stunning investigation, which won an AHCJ award this year.

 "Bacteria reports, a list of customer complaints, emails, depositions, everything was in there," Diedrich said during a great panel moderated by Julie Appleby at Kaiser Health News.

He told me later, "I didn't even have to go to the federal courthouse in Arkansas because it was all right there in Pacer."

2. When researchers tout "new," don't forget to look at "old." Perhaps the most stunning two slides I saw at AHCJ were by Dr. Allan Levey, chair of the Department of Neurology at the Emory University School of Medicine during Judith Graham's clear-as-a-bell panel on Alzheimer's. (And if you want to read a great column on aging, read Graham's pieces for The New Old Age in The New York Times.)

Levey showed a compilation of all the clinical trials that have been done to find a medication that would mitigate the effects of Alzheimer's. A total of 2,046 people were tested to find out whether substances such as omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, estrogen and vitamin B6 would work as a treatment.

All the results were negative.

"Many of you have contributed to the front page stories saying that estrogen plays a role in treatment of Alzheimer's, and then a few years later you have reported that the treatment with estrogen failed," Levey said.

Then he showed all the studies into various statins and anti-inflammatory drugs. A total of 1,371 people were studied in all. And, again, all the results were negative.

"This has led to a lot of concern, and a lot of nihilism, that we're not going to have a treatment," Levey said.

How much less nihilism and more cautious optimism would there be if the public was not whip-sawed with headlines that promise around-the-corner cures one day and negative clinical trial results soon after?

3. Tweets can make beautiful music. Lisa Zamosky brought together some of the most engaged and admired health writers using social media: Scott Hensley from NPR's Shots, Maryn McKenna from Wired and Scientific American, and Serena Marshall from ABC News. They all had fantastic tips for making better use of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other social media platforms.

When Marshall explained how she uses Facebook, I thought of Bill Cunningham biking around New York City finding themes in colors, patterns, and sheens. She steps out of the newsroom, essentially, and watches conversations happening outside the news cycle.

"People on Facebook are your friends, and if they are suddenly talking about something that they normally wouldn't be talking about, it probably will make a good story," Marshall said.

This led her to the quirky story of a movement to persuade Mattel to make a bald Barbie doll as a tribute to girls with cancer and other conditions. The story was a click magnet.

McKenna showed that you can have at least five different personalities on multiple platforms but pick one to be your primary hub, in her case, Twitter. She shared her notes for the talk on her Tumblr, which she uses less for photos and more for short bursts of ideas.

One hard lesson for many of us in social media to adopt might be her rule to self-promote no more than 1 out of every 25 tweets. McKenna even maintains a Flickr page called "The Buddha is everywhere."

"The main point of social media is to be social," McKenna said. "You should be there to have a conversation."

Hensley showed how noticing just one tweet led him to two great stories.

His Washington D.C. office at NPR is across the street from the Washington Convention Center, host to a revolving series of meetings by different medical societies.

"Half the time, I find out about medical meetings going on there by watching Twitter," Hensley said. He spotted a urologist meeting one day and thought he would check it out. It was at that meeting that a bomb was dropped on the field. A study found that having your prostate removed was no better than just monitoring prostate cancer to see whether it progressed.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Hensley said. "This study showed that surgical intervention was no better than watchful waiting. And the urologists in the room make a lot of money taking prostates out."

Hensley also was using Twitter at the meeting and saw one urologist tweeting about cancelling appointments based on the news.

It turned out to be Dr. Benjamin Davies from the University of Pittsburgh. Hensley started following him on Twitter and eventually struck up a friendly conversation online. But when he wrote his piece about the study, Hensley didn't quote Davies.

Then when news broke that Warren Buffett had prostate cancer, Davies tweeted that he would fire on the spot any medical resident who biopsied an 81-year-old man's prostate.

"Now it was time to call him for an interview," Hensley said. That led to this great piece.

4. Ask doctors what they do too much of. During Noam Levey's eye-opening panel about the myths surrounding the Affordable Care Act, John Rother from the National Coalition on Health Care recommended that all the reporters in the room check out a report from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation: Choosing Wisely. Some reporters – including Ezra Klein at The Washington Post -- already have written about this report, which came out on April 10. Choosing Wisely is the result of medical societies devising a list of five things that doctors in their specialties should stop doing. With nine societies involved, the list, so far, is 45 items long.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommended "Don't routinely prescribe antibiotics for acute mild-to-moderate sinusitis unless symptoms last for seven or more days, or symptoms worsen after initial clinical improvement." And "Don't perform Pap smears on women younger than 21 or who have had a hysterectomy for non-cancer disease."

The American College of Radiology recommended "Avoid admission or preoperative chest x-rays for ambulatory patients with unremarkable history and physical exam." And "Don't recommend follow-up imaging for clinically inconsequential adnexal cysts." These are cysts commonly found in pelvic exams.

I think reporters should challenge the other medical societies that have not signed on to this campaign. Where is the American Academy of Pediatrics? Where is American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons? Where are any of the cosmetic surgery societies?

5. A club can be a weapon. AHCJ as a professional society has been making waves, too. Felice J. Freyer at the Providence Journal told the AHCJ crowd on Saturday how the association had used its power to open doors that had been closed to journalists to allow for stories that will make for smarter health consumers and, hopefully, safer patients.

Last year, the federal government restricted access to the National Practitioner Data Bank, which health writers have used over the years for numerous investigations into the state of physician oversight through the U.S.

Health writers everywhere (including Antidote) revolted. "They said the databank would be down for six months or longer," Freyer said.

But AHCJ joined with other organizations and fought the ban. The feds backed down. They put the database back up, but, in order to use the database, reporters had to sign an agreement promising not to use the data to identify physicians for a story. And so AHCJ kept fighting.

"The restrictions remain in force, and we still object to them," Freyer told me later. "But when we pressed the feds on how they intended to enforce the rules, they said there would be no penalties."




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Editors note: An earlier version of this post indicated that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had threatened to penalize reporters for violating an agreement not to use the National Practitioner Data Bank to identify physicians. In fact, HHS was never clear on the possible penalties.

What else can health writers do to make a difference? I am lobbying AHCJ's Right to Know Committee to help devise a campaign to push for more access to death certificates and autopsy reports. Reporters on deadline are much more likely to glean useful information from one of those documents than they are the National Practitioner Data Bank, but they are barred from public view in many states and counties. Let's see what we can do about that.

What did you learn at Health Journalism 2012? Leave a comment below. Or send me an idea via Twitter @wheisel. You also can email me at

Related Posts:

10 Things I Learned at AHCJ 2010 | Reporting on Health

Journalists learn more about blogging, social media tools at AHCJ

Journalism stars come out for AHCJ Health Journalism 2011

Photo credit: Cliff via Flickr


Picture of Nathanael Johnson

Wish I could have been there! Thanks for bringing back these great tidbits.


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Here's my effort - thanks for the indepth post on your part.

Picture of William Heisel


Great post! I missed some of the sessions you mentioned and feel well served by these highlights.

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[...] by Bill Heisel, here [...]

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