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Q&A with Will Oremus: Why a high-flying doctor was worth pursuing

Q&A with Will Oremus: Why a high-flying doctor was worth pursuing

Picture of William Heisel

My fellow contributing editor here at ReportingonHealth, Barbara Feder Ostrov, suggested I might be beating up unnecessarily on Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Doyle John Borchers III in my post Wednesday.

After all, the poor guy did crash his plane and die. Why go over his alleged drug history?

Here's why. One of my main goals in this blog is to explore all the different places you can find information for health stories.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports seem an unlikely source, but Will Oremus at the Palo Alto Daily News, part of the Bay Area News Group, put together a great story using an NTSB report.

Even if you are regularly checking your medical board site for doctors in trouble or your state hospital licensing agency for hospital inspections, you might miss some interesting stories. I called Oremus to ask him how the story came about and whether anyone at the paper worried about hurting the late doctor's reputation.

A recap of our conversation is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Where did you find this NTSB report? The list of investigations on the site doesn't have anything more recent than 2007.

A: It's deep within the site. You have to go to their accident database and then put in the dates of the crash. I put in 8/7/08 to 8/8/08 and found a few crashes. I wanted the one near Incline Village. That gave me two reports, the factual report, which is sort of the preliminary report, and then the probable cause report, which is like the coroner's report that takes the crash apart and describes what happened and why.

Q: Why were you interested in Dr. Borchers in the first place?

A: I'm not a health reporter. I'm a very local news reporter. So from our perspective, the news was the plane crash. And the news value of the drug stuff was whether it was determined to play a role in the clash. Another paper had written a few months after the crash about the possibility that drugs were involved, and we decided not to write about it then because there was nothing official.

Q: And then it was made official by the NTSB. What did you do then?

A: Once we got confirmation from the NTSB that drugs were involved, I wanted to hear from Stanford what were they doing with this guy on staff. They decided not to comment.

Q: How did you approach Stanford?

A: I called the flak (press officer) for Stanford Hospital and asked to talk to Dr. John Adler, who had commented in our obituary for this doctor. And the flak said, "I'm not sure he's available." And I said, "If he's not available, I would accept talking to the dean of the medical school or anyone who is willing to comment about this crash investigation." She ended up saying something along the lines of "Stanford Hospital has no comment." If someone were to dig deeper and get around their official PR arm, maybe you could find out whether there was any negligence by Stanford, but that's not an angle I pursued. I'm not convinced that you could get to the bottom of that question, but I leave open the possibility.

Q: Did you talk internally about whether detailing the kinds of drugs the doctor had in his system would be unduly hard on his family?

A: I called his wife so she could comment before we wrote the story. And she didn't want to comment, but she did ask that we not use the photo she had given us as a courtesy earlier.

Q: So what did you do?

A: We did not use the photo. She said, "Why do you have to write about the drugs?" I told her that we had reported on the crash and made a commitment to follow up and see it through. We don't want to just leave people hanging. His daughter called me the next day and was really upset about the story. I told had the wife before that we thought there was a public interest in the story. We also made a decision not to play the story on the front page because we didn't want to sensationalize it. Our motivation wasn't to sell the newspaper, especially given that our newspaper is free. Our goal was not to further upset the family or to denigrate a dead person, but we had decided that no matter what the results showed we were going to report on what had happened with that plane crash. If there had not been evidence of drugs, there would have been a story, too.

Q: What made it a public interest story?

A: There were three people going to and from Palo Alto airport who had fatal crashes within about a month of each other. And that had sparked some local soul searching. It might have just been coincidence. But we thought that people deserved to know, as much as we could find out, what had caused these crashes.

Q: Is there anything left to do on this story?

A: Maybe if there were some sort of pattern or deeper trend at work of Stanford being accused of not background-checking its doctors, we could bring that back out. But I don't plan on pursuing the story further at this point.

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