In Depth

Politics Meets Health in D.C.

Election Invigorates Annual Gathering of Health Care Media

While the candidates for the presidency criss-cross the nation talking about the American health care system and how they plan to deal with it if elected, the health care broadcasters, journalists, reporters and media members will gather in Washington March 27-30 for their 10th annual conference. The fact that this year’s function takes place in the nation’s capital only heightens the anticipation.

Charles Ornstein, metro investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists board of directors, said, “It’s really cool that this is the presidential election year and we’re in Washington. A lot of the focus will be on policy issues and the issues that will certainly be on the forefront of the presidential election.”

With the talk of politics so prevalent, the AHCJ has scored a coup with its choice of keynote speaker.

“We’re really pleased that it is Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of John Edwards,” he said, referring to the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate. “She’s going to talk to us about her experiences on the trail, why she’s so passionate about universal health care and the need for health system reform, but also about her own personal struggle with cancer, to see things from the other side. She’s often said on the trail that she’s fortunate that she does have health insurance and she has a support system. She’s met so many people who have not had that, and that’s why she feels as strongly as she does. It will be great to hear from her.”

Ms. Edwards will speak at the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism luncheon on Saturday.

Also scheduled to appear at the gathering is the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, who on Friday will give a one-hour news conference to discuss the current state of the health care system.

One of the more interesting speakers on the AHCJ agenda is actor Dennis Quaid. Last year, Mr. Quaid’s infant twins nearly died because of a medication error in a hospital. The incident changed Mr. Quaid’s life.

“He has become a passionate supporter of patients’ rights and medication safety efforts after his twins were given an overdose of heparin back in November days after they were born,” said Mr. Ornstein. “They received 10,000 units per milliliter, instead of 10 units per milliliter, and for a time their health was touch-and-go because they received so much heparin that their blood was having trouble clotting and they were bleeding out from spots where they had had IV sticks. He’s launched a foundation to deal with medication errors, and he’ll be talking about that, and how as a patient he came to find out about the error.”

There were 400 attendees at last year’s AHCJ conference in Los Angeles, said Mr. Ornstein, and this year’s attendance is expected to be even better.

Field Trips
As much as journalists enjoy the speakers and in-hotel events, field trips are a top attraction for many members. There will be two field trips in the D.C. area on Thursday, March 27.

“That’s always a big draw, because people really like to get out and see things first-hand and watch the experts in a less formal setting. They like to really tour things and see things and ask questions. One is to Georgetown University Hospital and Georgetown University Medical Center; the other is a trip to the [U.S. Department of] Health and Human Services’ Emergency Operations Center and the Family Health & Birth Center. Then both groups will meet at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center.”

Technology and how health care reporters can use it in their reporting is a major topic at the conference and will be covered in two sessions. One workshop is about mapping software.

“There is increased use in public health for mapping: looking for disease clusters, looking for prescription drug patterns, like how does the West Nile [virus] make its way across the country?” Mr. Ornstein said. “For a while it’s been in the domain of public health, but because of the software that’s available, reporters can actually be doing that work themselves. We have great presenters, Brad Heath, who’s a reporter with USA Today, and Chris Kinabrew, public health specialist with ESRI, which is the software manufacturer. They’ll be leading a half-day session.”

Reporting in new media like Web video, blogging, podcasting and more is the subject of another topic for a session.

“It’s called Multimedia Tools for Telling Stories. We have bloggers, people in charge for writing programs,” Mr. Ornstein said, adding the moderator is Pia Christensen, managing editor/online services, Association of Health Care Journalists.

The goal is to give participants practical information that they can use immediately, including incorporating multimedia such as video into Web sites and blogging with optimum search engine efficiency.

Anniversary Roundtable
This year marks the 10th AHCJ conference, and there will be a roundtable devoted to the anniversary.

“Some of the founders of the organization are going to be talking about what’s changed, and how they are going to change in our field,” Mr. Ornstein said.

One of the more important issues at the conference is the need for quality health care journalism and what reporters in all media need to learn to do their jobs more efficiently.

“That’s why it’s important that there are organizations like ours. We take our role seriously. A lot of people come to this without that formal training, and so these conferences are so important for helping folks do their jobs in a responsible manner. They can get primers on important topics, meet key experts in the field and leave here able to return home with a real sense of what’s going on and a ton of story ideas,” said Mr. Ornstein. “Health care takes up such a large percentage of the U.S. economy; it’s really hard to ignore health care because it touches everybody at some point in our life. If you’re a responsible news organization, you care about something your readers and viewers and listeners care about,” he added.

AHCJ doesn’t run a job fair at the conference, but there will be opportunities for reporters and journalists to meet editors, producers and other media contacts.

“One of the things that we’re doing this year for the first time is a freelance pitch fest,” Mr. Ornstein said. “That’s an opportunity to talk to people about a variety of media. So we have the executive editor of WebMD, the senior editor from MSNBC, the senior food and nutrition editor from Health Magazine, folks from the New York Times and the L.A. Times, Prevention Magazine, AARP, plus a whole variety of news outlets.”

Last but not least are the aforementioned Excellence in Health Care Journalism Awards, which Ms. Edwards will present. “This is the fourth year we’re giving them and, unlike a lot of journalism awards, these are not sponsored by anyone; nobody contributes but our organization,” said Mr. Ornstein. “This is a health journalism award by reporters for reporters, and we award it in broadcast, radio and TV and online, and [in] print categories.”