Good morning Denver: Health writers meeting this weekend #AHCJ14

ahcj-logo-topNot much of a Boston presence at the Association of Health Care Journalists meeting this weekend, but we take note anyway.

Even if you are not a writer, the meeting offers much clear-eyed insight into the health care system. And these days, tools we use to probe quality and costs are available to anyone who knows how to sort a spread sheet. Still, journalists and consumers alike need to know how to surf the ongoing tsunami of health care data.

So, follow #ahcj14 on Twitter for tips and the occasional link.

The Boston Globe’s science blog is worth digging for

ss2aCarolyn Y. Johnson’s “Science in Mind”  blog in the  Globe, which is buried in the print version of the paper and difficult to find online. (Hover over  “News” and it’s in the menu to the right.)

Science reporting is hard. Writers have to find a spot between jargon spewing and oversimplification. The “why should I care?” bar can be difficult to scale, especially for important but incremental developments. The tendency is to hype it up, follow the crowd or regurgitate journal findings because they are vetted – so they must be important.

They aren’t always, so we need sharp blogging like Johnson’s. She does a bit of reporting on journal articles herself. But, she puts the research in context. At a time when even papers like The Washington Post are printing press releases as stories, blogging like this is even more valuable.  (For more on the need for good science reporting, see Sense about Science.)

Johnson’s latest post deals with the tendency of some to judge the value of science by the silly title or obscure topic of research articles. Here, she alerts to some pushback from a UMass researcher Patricia Brennan who studies reproduction in ducks.

Can’t resist the – Ha ha, duck dick –  pun? Unless you’re handing out Ig Nobels, grow up and read on:

Her work became the butt of political jokes when a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study duck penises attracted the attention of a conservative news website. Brennan found herself in the somewhat unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses, and saw a need for greater engagement with the public…

 In an interview, Brennan said that examining sexual conflict between male and female ducks provides a fascinating insight into evolutionary biology and sexual competition. That information is interesting in its own right, but she also notes that duck penises, which have an external sperm channel, may ultimately lead to new molecular insights that could be deployed in medicine. Or they might not. But unless scientists learn, no one will ever know.

Brennan points to research into avian genitalia that may already have a medical impact. Colleagues are examining why chickens do not have penises and ducks do, which may provide clues to better understand hypospadias, a birth defect in which boys’ penises are malformed.

Other posts of note:

STEM CELLS Already, scientists in laboratories across the world have begun dipping mature cells in acid, hoping to


 see whether this simple intervention really can trigger a transformation into stem cells, as reported by a team of Boston and Japanese researchers in January.

At the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a number of scientists have embarked on the experiment, which they’re informally calling “stem cell ceviche,” comparing it to the Latin American method of cooking seafood in lime and lemon juice.

 RESEARCH DATA:  For the past year, physicians, researchers, and ethicists have vigorously debated whether unexpected findings detected in people’s genomes should be reported back to patients or research subjects. In a provocative essay published Thursday, researchers from Harvard Medical School and King’s College London argue that an even more fundamental right has been totally absent from the conversation: research participants’ access to the raw data they provide.





Local reporters, editors, data crunchers win health journalism awards

A lot of the heath care journalism awards out there are kind of soft — they come from trade or industry groups. They have their own place on our walls, and, in some cases, we appreciate them. (In other cases, an award may represent a conflict of interest.  An award from an institutions you cover? Just say no. )

But the Association of Healthcare Journalists awards come with a lot of cred. And the  New England awards are well deserved. Congratulations colleagues. We get a chance to thank you in person when the AHCJ holds its annual meeting in Boston in two weeks.

ahcj awards-logo

Public Health (Large)

First: Coverage of Fungal Meningitis Outbreak Tied to Contaminated Drugs; Staff, The Boston Globe

Honorable mention: Cancer’s New Battleground: The Developing World; Joanne Silberner, David Baron, PRI’s The World

Consumer/Feature (Large)

Third: A Rampant Prescription, a Hidden Peril; Kay Lazar, Matt Carroll, The Boston Globe

Consumer/Feature (Small)

Second: Gift from Grief; Michael Morton, MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.)

Third: Demand for Home Care Workers Soaring, But Will There Be Enough Takers?; Arielle Levin Becker, The Connecticut Mirror

 Special citation: 40% of High-Prescribing Docs Get Pharma Perks; Lisa Chedekel, The Connecticut Health Investigative Team

Understanding science news: Infectious disease edition


A Harvard student group holds monthly seminars to explain complex scientific topics to the public. They usually fill an auditorium and they always videotape their presentations. Check out “Science in the News” here. The session on dog science didn’t have much of a news hook, but their current “Flash” newsletter does. As a nod to World AIDS Day, they put together a special edition on infectious disease. Check it out.



FlashSpecial Edition Contents: 

Support solid, local reporting on medical devices

A plug today.  

Mass Device  — officially called the The Massachusetts Medical Devices Journal —  is a web site that reports on the business of medical device industry.  Like pharma, the medical device industry develops products that create jobs and cure people. 

Both also make TONS of money off the way the health care system works now.  

 So, it is key to know how the industry operates and where it is heading. This is daily business reporting — you’re not likely to see investigative stories unearthing misdeeds. (Correct me if I’m wrong B or B.) But we need industry focused reporting on who is winning and who is losing and how these folks do business.

 Pharma gets a lot of coverage. But you usually have to get fairly deep into the business section for news on devices. Mass Device does it for you with blogs, Q&As, staff written stories and conferences.

 Here’s how they describe themselves.  The Massachusetts Medical Devices Journal is the online journal of the medical devices industry in the Commonwealth and New England, providing day-to-day coverage of the devices that save lives, the people behind them, and the burgeoning trends and developments within the industry.

 But the fact that everyone gets their news for free doesn’t change another fact – it costs money to produce the news. And all of us are looking for new ways to do that. So, consider buying a premium services at Mass Device. You get something for your money.  For $60 a year and up, you’ll get access to conference calls and business intelligence reports and more.  

 Disclosure. I wrote for Mass Device for a bit last year.  You can still find my week in review blog posts on their site.

  For a taste of what these folks do besides the blog, see the site for the upcoming conference on medical devices and the developing world.

Innovative medical technologies are changing the face of patient care in the developing world.  New low cost point-of-care diagnostics, patient monitoring systems, neo-natal and emergency care, and hand-held imaging probes are just a few of the products that are saving lives and improving care in emerging markets around the world.

Hear from leading providers of global health care, innovative medical technologies, and global investment funds who will direct panels on:

  • How innovative medical technologies are changing the quality of care in global health settings
  • How innovative distribution channels are opening new global markets for medical technologies
  • How global medical technology companies are attracting traditional venture capital investments
  • How cooperative partnerships are changing the medical technology global landscape
  • How to conduct successful clinical research and new product trials in global health settings
  • How to achieve design innovation for advancing patient care

 Coming up soon and not to be buried,  another plug, this one for a book on disease detectives by Vermont-based writer Mark Pedergrast. We’re not talking about a novel, Inside the Outbreaks is a true story about the teams that investigate fast spreading diseases like H1N1 for the CDC. It’s getting great reviews and BHN will add one when we finish.

Radio Boston: The Influence of Pharma on Docs

WBUR’s Radio Boston takes on the ever-present issue of the influence of drug makers on docs. Listen on their web site or today at 3. Guests include:

Jerry Avorn, M.D., PChief of the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and author of Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks and Costs of Prescription Drugs.

Leslie Jackowski, M.B.B.S. (M.D.), Exeuctive Director for Program at the ALOSA Foundation a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the dissemination of accurate, unbiased, evidence-based and non-commercial information about medications for health care professionals and patients by providing educational services (interactive outreach to physicians, classes, presentations, seminars, conferences) about the development, regulation, risks, and benefits of prescription drugs.” In other words, they come in after the drug companies pitch their drugs and give other docs more objective information about meds.  The scientific jargon for this is “counter-detailing,’ a reference to the term “detail man” used to describe drug reps who do direct sales to docs. That term is no longer relevant, especially since many detail men are now young, attractive women.

Thomas P. Stossel, M.D.,  American Cancer Society Professor of Medicine atHarvard Medical School, Director of the Translational Medicine Division at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Founder of the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators. For more on ACRE, see the BHN report on the group’s inaugural meeting, as well as a comment from former NEJM editor Arnold Relman. (Brother John Stossel, a crusading TV journalist who often takes on what he describes as “junk science,” just made the leap from ABC to Fox. )

Georgia Maheras,  Esq., Private Market Policy Manager at Health Care for All

Screen baby, screen — News coverage of new mammography guidelines

 BHN is a big fan of the health news blog produced by fellow health writer/journalism prof Gary Schwitzer at the University of Minnesota. And while we hate gratuitous attacks on the so-called “lamestream” media, there is a lot of really, really bad health reporting out there. Schwitzer follows and rates the coverage and he is always spot on.

So, check out his comments on the coverge of the new mammography guidelines, which brought out the worst in health journalism.  He calls it the “screen, screen, screen mentality.” 

Start with his “10 things that stand out from the mammography week to remember (forget?)”

Many of us might rather move on and end all of the discussion about the US Preventive Task Force’s mammography recommendations last week. But I think it’s essential that we reflect on ten things that stand out from last week:

1. Many in the general public (most of those quoted in news stories) are not prepared for evidence to be used in making health care recommendations. They haven’t been prepared by the health care industry, by their physicians, or by the news media. 

2. Many in health care (many of those quoted in news stories) are too invested in their own preferences to allow evidence to make a difference in their practices.

3. There is an undeniable and clear bias in many news stories, reporters and news organizations for promoting screening – evidence be damned. I’ve reported on this before and last week provided overwhelming new evidence. (Mind you – I said “many”, not “all.”)

4. The USPSTF, which is a collection of independent experts, has no public relations arm. They simply review the evidence and publish their recommendations.

5. The public relations machinery of the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology – and other groups that opposed the USPSTF recommendations – helped the anti-USPSTF message rule the media all of last week.

6. Politicians chimed in – sometimes distorting the evidence beyond all recognition. The clash between politics and science at such times is predictable and disgusting.

7. The rhetoric used to oppose the USPSTF recommendations was the ugliest and most ill-founded I can remember.

8. There was some excellent journalism done on the issue last week, but it was overwhelmed by and drowned out by the drumbeat of dreck shoveled out by many news organizations – including in much (not all) of what was provided on network TV.

9. The week may have caused harm to the nation’s discussion of health care reform.

10. The week was certainly a setback for the nation’s understanding of science, of evaluation of evidence, of the potential harms of screening tests.


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