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Health Journalism 2009: More of the year's most noteworthy stories

Health Journalism 2009: More of the year's most noteworthy stories

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

On Tuesday, I posted the first half of my "Top 10 list" of noteworthy health journalism. Here's the second half. It bears repeating: this definitely isn't a best-of list, and admittedly, it's print-centric. There's lots of excellent work out there that I didn't have a chance to read or view or listen to. But the five stories below are worth reading, and learning from.

More is Less and Someone Else's Money, This American Life/NPR News

These two hour-long radio shows, which aired in October on the popular NPR program This American Life, basically decode the U.S. healthcare system in such amusingly titled segments as "Dartmouth Atlas Shrugged" and "Who Would Win in a Fight Between a Polar Bear and an Insurance Company?" Excellent explanatory journalism on topics like health care quality and medical billing that can turn deadly boring in less capable hands.

Prison medical plan may far exceed need, Charles Piller, Sacramento Bee

Charles Piller has done excellent reporting on California's extraordinarily contentious, and expensive, process of reforming its prison health system, and this March story is a good example. Also worth checking out is his December examination of the costs of extreme overtime worked by prison health staffers.

Here's an excerpt:

Today, California spends about $14,000 per inmate annually for health services, more than double the cost in New York, Texas and Michigan. Those outlays, and plans to spend $8 billion more building or improving health centers, have drawn the ire of state leaders coping with the budget crisis.

Some experts consider the strategy to create 10,000 long-term medical and mental health beds wildly beyond the need. Adjusted to the prison population, prisoners would have access to up to 120 times as many beds as those used by the general public.

Major Gaps in Oversight of Human Medical Research, Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee, Huffington Post Investigative Fund

Investigative reporters Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee follow up on Lenzer's story about a troubled clinical trial at Columbia University Medical Center with a hard-hitting piece, published online in October, examining the current state of patient protections in medical research. Here's an excerpt:

Federal regulators have cited Columbia for ethical and regulatory mistakes in a clinical trial, completed in 2001, in which more than 200 patients agreed to receive one of four federally approved surgical fluids during open-heart operations. Regulators now have concluded that some patients may have been harmed and have ordered Columbia to track down all participants to inform them of the facts of the study and their surgeries, as the Huffington Post Investigative Fund  reported exclusively earlier this month. The hospital has acknowledged flaws in the study but has said there is no evidence those led to the patients' medical problems.

If the Gelsinger case was a pivotal moment in reform, the Columbia case is a cautionary tale, coming to light months after a sobering national review of clinical trials by independent bioethics research institute, the Hastings Center. In its 2008 review, the Hasting Center concluded the human subjects are no better protected today than they were at the time of Gelsinger's death.

Fresno is State's Asthma Capital, Barbara Anderson, Fresno Bee
Barbara Anderson details the backstory behind Fresno's dubious status as California's asthma capital, with nearly one in three of its children suffering from the disease. This is part of the Bee's Fighting For Air series touching on the environmental and health impact of Central Valley air pollution.

Here's an excerpt:

Agriculture, the region's biggest industry, produces pollen by the ton. Allergies to pollen can trigger asthma attacks. But researchers have found hay fever and asthma rates are 16 times greater when people are exposed to pollutants at the same time they're exposed to allergens - grasses, weeds, cat dander, smoke.

And many doctors say there's little doubt that smoggy and sooty air increases the frequency and severity of asthma attacks that send gasping children to doctor offices and emergency rooms throughout the Valley each year. They even have a nickname for their patients' chronic coughs: Valley lung.

Collision in Care: Jocelyn Wiener, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Jocelyn Weiner of the Center for California Health Care Journalism reports on Santa Cruz County's looming doctor crisis with reporting by Sentinel reporters J.M. Brown, Donna Jones and Shanna McCord. Here's an excerpt from this nicely written piece:

In the past two years, many of Santa Cruz County's elderly and disabled patients, like Man, have increasingly been shut out from a primary care system that has no room for them. Many doctors here, for years fed up with the low reimbursement rates paid by the federal insurance program for the elderly and disabled, now refuse to accept new Medicare patients. At the same time, the number of primary care physicians is declining. In the view of some local health care providers, the situation has reached a tipping point.

"Our health care system is breaking," said Dr. Tony Musielewicz, medical director of Dominican Hospital's emergency room. "The fact that the elderly have difficulty finding primary care is something the community, the county, the state and the nation have to work on as a whole."

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