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William Heisel's Antidote: Investigating Untold Health Stories

William Heisel, former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writes about investigative health reporting. He is currently the director of global engagement at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

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When it comes to lowering high infant mortality rates, Rwanda has become an encouraging if unexpected example of what can be done with "big data made small."

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Earlier in my career, I thought I needed “big data” to take my reporting to the next level. But I didn't understand at the time that truly big data was beyond my grasp. Most reporters don't need to manipulate such huge datasets to carry out smart, data-driven journalism.

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In too many states, you cannot get access to death certificates without being a next of kin, an attorney, or a law enforcement official. Frankly, that's absurd. Here are two examples from recent headlines that show why death certificates can prove so useful.

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The digital revolution has been a boon to reporting. But turning paper into digital files is not the same as making them freely available online, and major obstacles persist. The National Practitioner Data Bank offers a particularly egregious example.

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What is The Des Moines Register presenting to the world as the big issue of the day in Iowa in the run up to the caucuses? Government mistrust. But this isn’t about Benghazi; this is about far more mundane things, like thwarted record requests and outrageous fees.

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As the law stands now, doctors on probation have to tell hospitals and insurance companies about the fact that they are on probation. But they don’t have to tell their patients. Consumer groups argue that should change and momentum is building in support of the idea.

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The patient identified only as E.T. in documents had entered the hospital alive, with a slow heart rate. She died a few hours later, after Dr. Madhusudhan T. Gupta had tried to insert a pacemaker into her artery instead of her vein. Years would go by before the Medical Board took meaningful action.

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Dr. Gupta was performing a procedure in which a pacemaker is inserted through a patient's blood vessels. But he skipped a key step, and the patient's condition steadily worsened. The case is a reminder that the skills a physician has earlier in their career don’t always remain sharp toward the end.

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Last week, columnist William Heisel criticized the new California Healthcare Compare's website for how it rates hospitals on childbirth, noting that the tool focused too heavily on C-sections and breastfeeding. This week, he offers five indicators that would give potential patients a fuller picture.

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If you are pregnant and considering where to give birth to your child, what matters most to you? Probably not the quality measures used to calculate the ratings at California Healthcare Compare, a new online tool that allows consumers to compare health care prices and quality.

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