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About AHCJ: General News

Mile-High City draws crowd for Health Journalism 2014 Date: 03/30/14

AHCJ’s first Mountain States conference – Health Journalism 2014 – brought journalists from across the United States and beyond to Denver in March. With nearly 700 attendees, the conference included field trips, workshops, a special end-of-life track, spotlight speakers and dozens of panels.

Two of the conference’s highlights were talks by two experts who continue to impact the world of health care. During the conference kickoff event, Louis Sullivan, M.D., a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, addressed the conference after a lively talk from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who discussed the state’s legalization of marijuana.

Hickenlooper told the audience that public officials must be alert for unintended consequences of legalization and how the new law would affect children and young people.

In a conversation with interviewer and AHCJ member Andrew Holtz, Sullivan touched on his experience as the only African American student in his Boston University School of Medicine class in the 1950s, the founding dean and president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and as HHS secretary under President George H. W. Bush.

“Racism is really such a complex thing,” he said. “There’s no easy way to define it,” Sullivan told Holtz when asked about the doctor’s upbringing in the segregated South.

Much of the conversation was dedicated to his time as HHS secretary from 1989 to 1993 – particularly Sullivan’s experience at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Sullivan also touched on his experience with the media when he was first being considered for the position within the Bush administration and his experience with the political culture of the administration itself. The former secretary fielded several questions from the audience before joining the opening night reception to sign copies of his new book “Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine.”

Paul Offit, M.D., who is head of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he’d had it with the journalistic canard of false balance as a reflexive stand-in for objectivity – and he’s not shy about taking journalists to task for what he calls a skewed public narrative on the dangers of vaccines. “You tell two sides of the story when only one side is supported by science,” the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine pediatrics professor and scourge of anti-vaccine activists said at the Health Journalism 2014 awards luncheon.

Offit singled out a Philadelphia television news station’s breathless report on a meningitis B vaccine offered to Princeton University students in response to a 2013 outbreak of a rare strain that was also found at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The report was entitled “Student Guinea Pigs?” and featured interviews with both Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and Sherri Tenpenny, D.O., a vaccine critic. The reporter frames Tenpenny’s sound-bite with the jarring qualifier that while she “doesn’t hate vaccines,” Tenpenny has doubts about the vaccine made available to Princeton students.

“We should hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Offit said, recounting how he challenged the news segment’s producer in a follow-up call to “be a little more careful next time when you choose your experts.” He called the low adolescent participation rate for HPV vaccines to reduce the sexually transmitted disease “our biggest national embarrassment,” the product of an irrational public fear of science he said is giving the public pronouncements of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari the same weight as respected NIH researchers.

“Why do we care what these people say? Why do we keep beating this drum?” he said. “It’s very easy to scare people. It’s harder to unscare them.”

His talk was followed by the presentation of the 2013 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, recognizing the best health reporting in 12 categories.

The contest’s winning entries included an investigation that found criminals running diet supplement companies, a series revealing the failure of hospitals to provide life-saving newborn screening tests and an examination of efforts to prevent childhood deaths in Africa and Asia.

First-place awards also went to articles that looked at the potential dangers of acetaminophen, the reasons behind a high suicide rate in Montana and what happens to veterans who lose their health benefits when they are discharged for minor offenses. Elizabeth Rosenthal, a reporter for The New York Times, won first place in beat reporting for a series exploring why the United States has the most costly medical care in the world.

The conference began with a day of field trips to research and clinical facilities on the University of Colorado School of Medicine campus, Children’s Hospital Colorado, University of Colorado Hospital and National Jewish Health. Those not going on the field trips took part in a series of workshops, including sessions from covering end-of-life issues to better use of statistics in stories.

Panels during the bulk of the conference – including the ever-popular How-to Sunday sessions – included Affordable Care Act-related panels, public health, the business of health, medical research and more.

Health Journalism 2015 is scheduled for April 23-26 in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara, Calif., hosted by Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Hospitals & Clinics, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research, Stanford University.