In Depth

Care-less in the U.S.

Al Jazeera Report Takes an In-Depth Look at the Country’s Uninsured and Underinsured

At Health Journalism 2009 in Seattle this week, the Association of Health Care Journalists will be presenting awards in 11 categories honoring the best in health care reporting.

Al Jazeera English Television received the second-place prize in the television category for “Health Care USA,” a beautifully shot report examining the state of American health care with a special focus on rural communities. Al Jazeera looked deeply into the uninsured and the underinsured, and how those individuals dealt with medical issues on a daily basis.

The idea for the show came from a widely publicized 2008 Harvard study that identified two areas of southwest Virginia (Radford County and Pulaski County) where life expectancies among women had declined. That kind of statistic was virtually unheard of in a country as wealthy as the United States, thus piquing the curiosity of the producers at Al-Jazeera.

“We decided to travel to Radford and Pulaski to investigate the kind of health care services available locally and the kind of medical problems that are most prevalent in the area,” said Hanaan Sarhan, producer of “Health Care USA.” “We also took a special interest in local health care providers that offer free and discount services for patients without health insurance, and their tireless effort to fill in the gaps where privatized health care is out of reach.”

Technical Quality

The judges were impressed with many elements of “Health Care USA,” including the way it was filmed and edited.

“This team more than accomplished its goal, taking viewers across Appalachia with the Al-Jazeera crew and meeting a number of people struggling to have health or dental needs met in the face of lack of insurance and scarcity of providers,” wrote the judges. “The segment also highlights both hard-working advocates as well as dedicated nurses, doctors and dentists who staff free clinics, treating the real people behind the statistics of the health care crisis in America.”

Traveling to rural Appalachia gave the Al-Jazeera team the chance to reveal a slice of American life that has rarely been broadcast. “The level of isolation in certain parts of Appalachia is astounding,” Ms. Sarhan said. “We discovered communities where there are no emergency services; residents who dial 911 are connected to a local volunteer rescue squad who may then have to drive 45 minutes or more to transfer the patient to the nearest working hospital. It’s a far cry from the kind of instantaneous response that many Americans are used to.”

When they learned they had been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalism, Ms. Sarhan said they were a little surprised, but very pleased. “I’m quite proud that we, as an international network, succeeded in telling a uniquely American story with sensitivity and accuracy and depth and originality. Not bad for a Canadian reporter and his Egyptian-American producer!” she said.

As for who will be picking up the award in Seattle, that’s still to be determined. “I hope to attend the conference myself, but I’m trying to work out the details with my boss,” Ms. Sarhan said.