The right to know: It’s a concept that underpins all journalism, and nowhere is it more important than in health care and medicine. Patients have a right to know what will keep them healthy and what will make them sick. Citizens have a right to know how effectively their government protects and serves those who depend on it. For health care journalists that means heavy responsibilities – and sometimes daunting challenges. Through its Right to Know Committee, AHCJ advocates for openness and provides resources for members striving to shed light on complex topics.
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Reporters can encounter obstacles in obtaining documents that reveal what the government is doing, or failing to do – on the local, state and federal levels. Some public record laws are weak, and they may also be poorly enforced. Here are resources and stories to guide you in accessing public records.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act includes privacy protections for patients that can be misunderstood and misapplied by health officials and health care organizations. In some instances, HIPAA has been improperly used to deny reporters’ requests for interviews with patients and clinicians or to obtain medical information. Reporters should be familiar with the law in order to understand when and to whom it applies.
The high cost of medical care is one of the biggest challenges facing American society—a challenge made more difficult by a complex and shifting financing system. Journalists have a key role in informing the public about where and how money flows in health care, who benefits, and what practices yield the highest value.
The Association of Health Care Journalists advocates for the free flow of information for journalists and the public. Through its advocacy arm, the Right to Know Committee, it works to open doors to health and medical knowledge and serves as a resource for members having difficulty accessing information.
Try to talk with someone at an agency before making a records request. Often they will help you craft a request that won’t be denied and can help you understand what information exists and what is publicly available. Public officials frequently want to be helpful and understand they have to follow the law. Try to talk with someone at an agency
— Ellen Gabler, reporter and assistant editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s investigative team.