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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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Pia Christensen of the Association of Health Care Journalists responded to an earlier blog post that I had essentially ignored some good reporting on the Public Citizen report about how hospitals are failing in a very big way to report bad doctors to the National Practitioner Data Bank. She cited three stories, saying:

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Four days after Michael Jackson died of an unexpected heart attack on June 25, Dr. John Dombrowski,an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, posted a letter on his Web site, demanding better pain management for all patients and a recognition that pain care is an important specialty.

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It sounds like a line a standup comic might use while flailing for a laugh: "What's a guy gotta do around here to get arrested? Steal somebody's kidney?"

If you are a doctor in a hospital in most of the United States, the answer is: yes.

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UPDATE: The Associated Press reported Monday afternoon that Dr. Conrad Murray gave Jackson propofol to help him sleep, and the dose proved to be lethal. Today, police and federal drug enforcement officials are reportedly searching Murray's Las Vegas home.

It is the most anticipated autopsy in modern history.

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Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the acting president of Public Citizen and the head of its Health Research Group, is a guy you don't want to have as an opponent. He has an encyclopedic command of the facts and a delivery that manages to be both gracious and a little intimidating.

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Ask your doctors about the hardest period of their lives, and they likely will say their medical residency. The hours are long. The work is mentally and physically exhausting. There's little credit when you get something right. Getting something terribly wrong can send you packing.

Dr. Bruce Anthony Ames, Jr. (Oregon License No. 23261, California 97046) found a hobby, of sorts, to relieve his stress.

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Public Citizen put together an important report in May that was mostly missed by the press (including me).

It's a comprehensive and critical investigation of The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), created by the Health Care Quality Improvement Act 19 years ago, ostensibly to protect patients from rogue doctors.

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To be generous, we could say that Dr. Alexander Kalk of Creve Coeur, Mo. was a workaholic.

He literally lived in his medical office, according to the medical board in Missouri, and was so busy, apparently, that he did not have time to change his clothes or take a shower.

Walking around in the same clothes day after day might make a guy irritable. So perhaps it's understandable that he took to berating his employees and sending threatening messages to a medical billing company.

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Often following a major journalistic investigation a governor or a senator or a president even will call for hearings or declare the creation of a blue ribbon panel to assess the situation and decide how to proceed.

Years can go by before a report, usually thick with euphemism and buck passing, lands on someone's desk, often a different governor or senator or president than the one who called for the assessment. Processes are "streamlined." Efficiencies are realized. Nothing really changes.

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