In Depth

Health Care Journalists Look Ahead

By Elizabeth Jensen

Attendees at the Association of Health Care Journalists’ 2010 convention in Chicago may be coming to do the usual rounds of catching up with far-flung friends and making business contacts, but first they have to work.

Even before the Thursday night welcome reception, the April 22-25 conference has scheduled back-to-back newsmaker briefings with Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Friday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m., there’s another briefing, this one from Jeffrey Shuren, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
Len Bruzzese, the executive director of the AHCJ, said via an e-mail interview that the group is “excited to have three newsmaker briefings this year, which can generate breaking-news reports for those attending. The information shared in these sessions can usually be localized for almost any city or state.”

Attendance at the convention was down in 2009, but Bruzzese said he’s expecting a crowd of close to 500 people this year for the event, well above last year. For one, Chicago, where the convention is being held, is easier to reach for the East Coast members than last year’s venue, Seattle. Moreover, he said, AHCJ was able to work with more foundations this year to offer fellowship support for reporters who needed financial help in order to attend.

As in the past, “We wanted to once again put on a wide range of sessions to cover the core angles of health-related coverage,” Bruzzese said, including medical research, health policy, the business of health care, consumer health and public health.

And, he said, given the recently passed national health care overhaul, “We particularly wanted to pay attention to what’s next in health reform efforts. We have a track of health reform sessions that address topics that can be covered on the local scene — within our attendees’ own communities.” Those topics include “Does Comparative Effectiveness Research Work?” as well as an outlook for hospitals, what’s ahead for state and local governments, understanding health insurance and whether there is a looming doctor shortage.

Another topic that is still fresh in reporters’ minds is swine flu, which appeared on the scene just one year ago. The Friday lunch “spotlight” panel, Bruzzese said, will bring together public health experts, including Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health; Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases; and Litjen Tan, director of medicine and public health at the American Medical Association and co-chair of the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, to assess how the government, media and the private sector reacted to the pandemic.

The keynote speaker for Saturday’s awards luncheon will be Dr. Peter Pronovost, an intensive care specialist who founded the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins University.

Pronovost, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, has been in the news in recent weeks with the release of his book, “Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor’s Checklist Can Help Us Change Health Care from the Inside Out.” Atul Gawande wrote recently in The New Yorker that Pronovost’s work “has already saved more lives than that of any laboratory scientist in the past decade.”

Finally, Bruzzese noted, in recognition of the changing work circumstances of journalists, the conference has designed a couple of opportunities specifically aimed at freelancers, including a “PitchFest,” where freelancers get the chance to propose story assignments to editors. The Friday session will include editors from Self Magazine, The New York Times, WebMD, MSNBC.com and Kaiser Health News, among others.