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St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters won the patient protection prize

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters won the patient protection prize

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antidote, reporting on health, william heisel, patient safety, medical board, Missouri

Very few journalists have the pleasure of hearing the champagne bottle pop in their honor on Pulitzer day.

In Antidote's perfect world, there would be just as many celebrations for days like July 13.  On that day, the governor of Missouri signed a new law that should make it simpler for the Missouri Board of Healing Arts to discipline dangerous physicians. Blythe Bernhard at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:

The new law will allow the board to conduct a hearing if it believes a doctor is a threat to patients because of incompetency, mental illness or substance abuse. The board could then order competency tests and discipline any doctor who fails to meet minimum standards. Under current law, the cases have to first be heard by the state administrative hearing commission, a process that can take several years. The law will also allow the release of information about doctors that has been kept confidential. A doctor's educational background, specialty certifications, disciplinary record in other states and pending discipline cases will become public information. Now, only a doctor's address, license date and previous discipline record are made available.

The law could have been signed by Bernhard and her fellow reporter Jeremy Kohler, were journalists allowed to do such things. The two wrote a terrific series of stories last year called Who Protects the Patients? They did it in the best way, too, publishing what they found throughout the year instead of waiting until the final weeks of December to drop their please-award-me gobstopper on the masses.

Missouri was one of Antidote's most distressing stops on last year's Doctors Behaving Badly tour. The Missouri Board of Healing Arts had delayed for years disciplining a doctor accused of forgery, dangerous prescription drug practices and jeopardizing the privacy of thousands of patients. It failed to do more than slap the wrist of a doctor caught repeatedly abusing methamphetamine. Even a doctor who had been disciplined twice by the board and banned from delivering babies had a mere 139 words dedicated to him on the board's website.

Bernhard, a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow, and Kohler talked to me in August about their reporting, I also shared some tips from their series in May, August, and  in December.

Last week, I asked them how they felt about the new law.

"It feels very rewarding to know that in a couple months, Missouri patients (including us!) will be able to find out where our doctors went to medical school, whether they have a discipline record in another state and if the board has a pending complaint against them. More information means better decision-making," Bernhard wrote. "Even more importantly, the law has the potential to save some patients from being assaulted or injured by doctors the healing arts board knows to be a threat to the public."

Kohler was similarly glad to see the new law made official, but he also said he had doubts about the need for the law in the first place.

"I'm pleased that our legislators read our stories and acted to improve transparency and safety for Missouri patients, but I don't buy the argument that weak laws were to blame for the state's lax policing of dangerous doctors," Kohler wrote. "The Post-Dispatch will be watching closely to see if with the new legislation comes a change in culture among state regulators -- to one that truly values patient safety above preserving doctors' reputations."

I confirmed with Bernhard that there were no champagne bottles popping for their role in this new layer of patient protection. But Bernhard and Kohler aren't in journalism for recognition. They wrote their series for people like Alexis Evette Richie. If you read their story about what happened to Alexis, you'll know why.

Related Posts:

Q&A with Blythe Bernhard and Jeremy Kohler: Uncovering a teen's death and a troubled health system

Remember Alexis: Five Tips for Investigating Hospitals from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis Post Dispatch uncovers felons making healthcare "affordable"

Doctors Behaving Badly: Dr. Alexander Kalk

Doctors Behaving Badly: In Iowa, having an MD is a license to take meth

Five Lessons from the St. Louis Post Dispatch's "Who protects the patients?"

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