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About AHCJ: General News

Record crowd attends Health Journalism 2011 Date: 05/01/11

Health Journalism 2011Stories were pitched, skills were sharpened, cutting-edge technologies were experienced firsthand. Those are just a few of the highlights of the record-setting Health Journalism 2011, AHCJ's annual conference, held April 14-17 in Philadelphia.

More than 625 attendees – a record – from 37 states and six countries were on hand, including about 100 fellows – also a record – through seven different fellowship programs, funded by five private foundations.

In his keynote address during the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism luncheon, G. Michael Lemole Jr., M.D., the University of Arizona neurosurgeon who helped save the life of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, recounted how the local health system worked the day Giffords was shot.

"Everyone made a big deal of what we did, but it's what we do every day ... This is academic medicine at its best," Lemole said.

The Philadelphia native was just one of dozens of speakers and panelists. Conference attendees found the opportunity to hear from Lemole helpful in thinking about their own reporting.

"It's always good to hear from the other side. We're always asking the questions and don't usually get a chance to hear how they viewed us," said Stephanie Nano, assistant health and science editor for The Associated Press in New York.

As always, the health journalism conference made news.

On the conference's first day, Medicare chief Donald Berwick unveiled a government website, the "Health Indicators Warehouse," and offered a live demonstration. He said the site offers "a treasure trove of data," including information never released before in an easily accessible form, including patient safety data, preventive health care indicators, Medicare payment claims and hospital performance at the state and hospital referral region level.

To reduce health care costs, he promised continued scrutiny of Medicare Advantage plans, the government-subsidized private health plans, noting that the Affordable Care Act rewards top-performing plans with bonus payments. The law creates accountable care organizations, in which health care providers coordinate patient care in various medical settings. The new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation "can now nurture invention around the country ... that have the effect of lowering cost and raising quality," he said.

Later in the conference, a packed room of attendees heard from Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, about genetic discoveries that can lead to advances in understanding health and disease.

Such genomic research is possible because sequencing costs have come down dramatically allowing for an explosion of research findings, especially from The Cancer Genome Atlas project. Research coming from this project has already led to a test that tells women with a common type of breast cancer whether they need or don't need chemotherapy. The test spares some women the toxicity and cost of chemotherapy and saves the health care system about $100 million dollars, Collins said.

"Don't let anybody tell you that new technology always costs more," said Collins.

The NIH hopes to take opportunities from what Collins calls the "golden era of discovery in the molecular basis for disease" and help researchers cross the gap between fundamental knowledge to FDA approved therapeutics. Most potential therapeutics fail in the pre-clinical stage; however, Collins sees that failure as an opportunity for something new and innovative.

Collins said that one worrisome note is the recently approved 2011 budget. The NIH will receive $30.924 billion dollars, which is down 1 percent. This is highly unusual because there was only one time in the past 30 years that the NIH budget has dropped.

The conference began with three busloads of attendees taking field trips to see hands-on research, cancer treatment, medical procedure and training for future health professionals.

One field trip visited ECRI Institute facilities, where attendees visited the nation's only real-life CSI lab focused on forensic health care accident investigations and took a virtual tour into the future of health care with insights from the new federal health care technology horizon scanning program. The same group's last stop was at the world-renowned Mütter Museum, part of the oldest professional society in the nation, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia (founded in 1787). At the museum, AHCJ members explored the disturbingly informative collections and specimens, from medical oddities to antique surgical instruments.

Another group visited the University of Pennsylvania's Roberts Proton Therapy Center, where radiation oncologists attack cancer with a beam of particles shot out of a 220-ton cyclotron and delivered into patients at 100,000 miles per second.

The group split to tour either a high-tech facility where personalized medicines are made, or Penn's new 22-bed Neurocritical Care Unit. At the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, AHCJ members donned bunny suits, lab booties and surgical gloves to experience this "clean" laboratory suite where patients' own cells are engineered to make therapies uniquely suited to their diseases. At the Neurocritical Unit, members saw how the multi-disciplinary Neurocritical Care Team rapidly integrates neurologic expertise with multiple streams of monitored data. The team discussed cross-disciplinary ways Penn is developing specialty applications for technology and pioneering collaborations in medicine, computer science, bioengineering and sociology.

At a stop on the Drexel University College of Medicine campus, attendees saw new methods of teaching doctors to have a good "bedside manner" by teaching them early on how to interact with patients and talk to them in a way that encourages open communication. The Physician and Patient course takes place inside a suite of exam rooms equipped with digital audio and visual recording capabilities for use in "standardized patient" encounters. Standardized patients are actors who are taught to portray various clinical conditions and who are trained to provide feedback to students and residents.

Also at Drexel, members saw new technology making it easier for medical students to learn via robots. Drexel's brand new state-of-the-art Blue Cross Medical Simulation Center is equipped with the latest high-fidelity patient simulators that exhibit life-like vital signs, including heartbeats, blood pressures, and body and eye movements. These robots are programmed to display a variety of normal and abnormal conditions, and to respond realistically to student interventions, such as intubation, drug injection or cardiac defibrillation.

At Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, some field trip attendees test drove the da Vinci surgical robot and learned how the top-ranked pediatric hospital is training the next generation of surgeons. A tour of the hospital's Cardiac Center, with two state-of-the-art operating rooms, equipped floor to ceiling windows and oversize monitors to watch small hearts become exposed to the expert hands that repair congenital heart defects in small patients.

At the Dr. Robert and Dorothy Rector Clinical Skills Center at Thomas Jefferson University, attendees saw how health care works are being trained using state-of-the-art patient simulators. "Sim Man" and "Harvey" reproduced physiological signs, such as blood pressure, heart and breathing sounds, but also allowed students to practice basic and advanced clinical skills. At the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, AHCJ members saw the integration of complementary therapies, with physicians demonstrating therapies that included acupuncture, hormone replacement therapy using pellets, high-dose vitamin C to treat cancer and mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Those who opted out of the field trips had the chance to attend workshops designed for journalists to hone their skills in using databases and maps in their research and reporting, improved reporting about health care research, and adding multimedia elements for stories and projects.

Seventy-one freelance journalists took advantage of the ever-popular Freelance PitchFest. For most of an afternoon, 18 editors took part in 276 appointments with writers. The annual event was just one of several offerings to freelancers, with panels and a breakfast forum designed for that particular segment of AHCJ membership.

On Sunday morning of the conference, its perennial "how-to" sessions were crowded and covered hospital quality and finances, using evidence-based research tools, and a special session on health reporting for broadcasters.

The conference offered almost 40 additional panels, classes and networking opportunities. With more than 150 speakers, the panels covered a wide variety of subjects - research, policy, public health, business, clinical medicine and journalism.

A record number of journalists attended Health Journalism 2011 to learn how to improve their reporting and get story ideas.