Category Archives: Health data

Caution in order when tackling newly released Medicare data

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and past president.

AHCJ hosted a webcast about the CMS data, featuring several CMS officials and Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica and member of AHCJ’s board of directors.

The federal government is expected Wednesday to release data on the services provided by – and money paid to – 880,000 health professionals who take care of patients in the Medicare Part B program. For 35 years, this data has been off limits to the public – and now it will be publicly available for use by journalists, researchers and others.

While the data offers a huge array of stories, which could take weeks or months to report out, it also has some pitfalls. Here are six things to be aware of before you dig in:

Have a strategy for storing and opening the data. This data set is big. About 10 million rows, from what I hear. Because of that, you won’t be able to analyze it in Microsoft Excel and you might not be able to open it in Microsoft Access. You’ll want to upload it onto a data server and analyze it in a more powerful program such as SQL or SPSS. This could well serve as a barrier to entry for smaller news organizations. You may want to partner with an academic institution or another news outlet to analyze the data. Continue reading

Prescribing data and the side effects of assumptions #ahcj14

Jaclyn Cosgrove

About Jaclyn Cosgrove

Jaclyn Cosgrove is a medical and health reporter at The Oklahoman. She is attending Health Journalism 2014 on an AHCJ Rural Health Journalism fellowship, which is supported by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Reporters curious about the financial relationship between physicians and pharmaceutical companies can use publicly available data as a starting point – although that comes with some caveats, journalists and industry leaders say.

During the workshop “Covering prescription drug data,” Charles Ornstein, ProPublica senior reporter, pointed out resources that ProPublica has created that reporters can use to write stories about doctors in their communities. Continue reading

As new year begins, consumers lack data to make informed health care decisions

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at

One of the biggest health care news stories of 2013 was the lack of price transparency. But consumers need much more than price information to know how to shop for health care services.

They need extensive information on the quality of care physicians, hospitals, and other providers deliver. Unfortunately, data on the quality that physicians and hospitals deliver are not as widespread or as robust as they need to be.

A recent report, “State Report Card on Transparency of Physician Quality Information,” from the Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute (HCI3) addresses the issue, saying:

“… finding information on the quality of physicians remains elusive for most consumers. While Medicare has a public web site that contains information on physicians, it is completely void of any data on the quality of care delivered. That’s all the more surprising since physicians have been reporting a basket of quality measures to Medicare for several years.

“There are commercial websites that provide some information on the quality of physician care, but there’s often a fee to pay for the full report, and the objectivity of the data on those sites has been questioned by many researchers.”

Continue reading

Updated hospital inspection data includes psychiatric facilities

Jeff Porter

About Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter is the special projects director for AHCJ and plays a lead role in planning conferences, workshops and other training events. He also leads the organization's data collection and data instruction efforts.

hospital-inspection-orgAHCJ has updated its website and the downloadable version of the data to include reports from most of 2013. The database – obtained from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services – now includes psychiatric hospital complaint-based inspection reports. Previous versions included only acute-care and critical access hospitals.

The database includes reports about deficiencies cited during complaint inspections throughout the United States since Jan. 1, 2011. The new records include June through September, with a handful of October reports. It does not include results of routine inspections or those of long-term care hospitals. It also does not include hospital responses to deficiencies cited during inspections. The website explains how to obtain that information.

The update added 2,976 records with inspection details, giving the database a total of 9,152 records. Some state health departments and CMS regional offices have lagged in uploading deficiency reports to the agency’s main database. CMS has identified the hospitals with missing reports, and they are labeled as such on CMS has committed to working with its regional offices and state counterparts to speed the uploading of inspection reports so that the public has access to this important information. The updated database includes 429 inspections lacking details.

AHCJ launched the free, searchable news application in March. The inspection reports have been configured by AHCJ to be easily searchable by keyword, city, state and hospital name. The website is open to anyone, but only AHCJ members have access to a downloadable version and additional resources to help users understand what is being reported and what is not. These caveats are important for putting the information into context.

Funding for the project was provided by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Cost reports show financial health of hospitals, amount of charity care they provide

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Clifton Adcock

Clifton Adcock

Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative journalism team, recently published a two-part series on hospitals based on financial data obtained for every hospital in the state. As reporter Clifton Adcock writes in an article for AHCJ, the series revealed that between half and three-fourths of small general hospitals in Oklahoma were losing money, and that hospitals had spent only small fractions of their net patient revenues on charity care.

Hospitals get “disproportionate-share” (DSH) payments from the federal government to help cover costs for treating the indigent. Because Oklahoma was not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, hospital groups said they expected to take a big financial hit from the law’s cuts to DSH payments. Oklahoma Watch wanted to see how much they relied on such payments. Continue reading

Online tool uses state, federal data to track marketplace enrollments

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at

The federal government plans to release exchange enrollment figures once a month (here’s the first report), and they’re expected to give more demographic information (i.e. age, metal tier) in future updates. States have different timetables for releasing their statistics. To keep track of it all, the Kaiser Family Foundation has a new tool: the State Marketplace Statistics.

It has both the enrollment numbers as well as some other key stats to  watch (when available):

  • Completed applications
  • Eligibility determinations, including how many people can enroll in a marketplace plan with financial assistance and how many qualify for Medicaid/CHIP
  • How many have selected a plan

Should journalists cover hospital ratings?

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and past president.

(Editor’s note: This was originally published on Ornstein’s Tumblr site and re-published here with his permission.)

Few things in health journalism make me cringe more than news releases touting hospital ratings and awards. They’re everywhere. Along with the traditional U.S. News & World Report rankings, we now have scores and ratings from the Leapfrog Group, Consumers Union, HealthGrades, etc.

I typically urge reporters to avoid writing about them if they can. If their editors mandate it, I suggest they focus on data released by their state health department or on the federal Hospital Compare website. I also tell reporters to be sure to check whether a hospital has had recent violations/deficiencies identified during government inspections. That’s easy to do on the website, run by the Association of Health Care Journalists (Disclosure: I was a driving force behind the site.)

Last week, I got an email from Cindy Uken, a diligent health reporter from the Billings (Mont.) Gazette. She was seeking my thoughts on covering hospital ratings. I sent her a story written by Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News about the proliferation of ratings. Two of every three hospitals in Washington, D.C., Rau reported, had won an award of some kind from a major rating group or company. He pointed out how hospitals that were best-in-class in one award program were sometimes rated poorly in another.

This got me thinking: What should reporters tell their editors about hospital rankings, ratings and awards. I sought advice from Rau, ProPublica’s Marshall Allen, Steve Sternberg of U.S. News & World Report and John Santa of Consumers Union. Here’s what they told me: Continue reading

AHCJ seeks release of health insurance exchange data

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is a member of AHCJ's board of directors, serving as vice chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a medical writer for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

AHCJ has called on the federal government to release data about enrollment in the federal health insurance exchange as soon as the numbers are tabulated.

In a letter sent Thursday to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, and Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, AHCJ president Karl Stark asks for daily or weekly updates, rather than the monthly updates the administration has planned. 

“This information is critically important, not only for journalists but for professionals involved in ACA-related work and any American who wants to buy health insurance,” Stark wrote. Continue reading

Anaheim advice for those attending health data workshop

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

AHCJ’s Health Data Journalism Workshop is right around the corner. We’re thrilled if you’ve chosen to join us this Thursday and/or Friday in Anaheim.

If you’re interested in sharing a ride or going to one of the theme parks together, please use the comment section below to share your information.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Anaheim. When you’re not in sessions, here are some things to do, as suggested by our workshop hotel and from the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

You can find information on the hotel’s website about places to eatThe hotel recommends taking the Super Shuttle to/from the airport. Parking is $15 per night. And, if you bring the family or have some extra time before or after the workshop, we’ve arranged for discounted tickets to Disneyland.

If you haven’t signed up for the workshop but still want to attend, we will be accepting on-site registration for Friday’s sessions. Just print out the appropriate registration form, fill it out and bring it with you. The hands-on sessions scheduled for Thursday are full.

Shared wisdom: Giving depth to an anecdotal story

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The, New America Media,, Practical Diabetology, Home Care Technology report and on HealthStyles Radio (WBAI-FM, NYC). She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College, NYC, and a co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

Lisa Chedekel

It pays to read your email, according to AHCJ member Lisa Chedekel, co-founder of the Connecticut Health I-Team (C-Hit), a group of experienced journalists who provide in-depth reporting on health and safety issues in the Nutmeg state and surrounding region. She came across a new OIG report which supports an ongoing investigation into observational status of hospitalized Medicare patients.

Read her shared wisdom about the problem of patients placed on “observational status” and how she was able to back up anecdotal reports with hard data.