Category Archives: Hot Health Headline

Choose words carefully when writing about Ebola

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Phot by NIAID via Flickr

Image by NIAID via Flickr

Word choice matters, especially when it comes to covering a deadly disease.

You may have heard the terms “infectious” and “contagious” being used interchangeably in Ebola stories. Even health professionals sometimes use them that way, and that is adequate in many instances. However, minor differences between the two terms may play a role in which one you decide to use in a story.

According to the CDC, contagious means the bacteria or virus can be transmitted from person to person (a communicable disease), and is quantified by R-nought – a mathematical construct that predicts the number of people a contagious individual will infect. Continue reading

Panic is contagious: How to cover public health preparedness

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Photo: CDC Global via Flickr

Photo: CDC Global via Flickr

It’s been said that fear travels faster than the virus.

This is true. Given that Ebola is less contagious than many other communicable diseases, it’s easier to catch Ebola panic than Ebola itself. But if you’re a health care journalist writing about Ebola or the Ebola response, it’s sometimes hard to tell the real stories from the sensationalism.

In light of the Ebola diagnosis of  two Dallas health care workers and the CDC initially placing blame on a “breach in protocol,” the past couple of days have seen a flurry of inflammatory Ebola coverage that focuses on the negatives.  One of these is a survey from National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the U.S.: 80 percent of NNU nurses surveyed don’t feel they have received adequate Ebola training.  New allegations have surfaced that nurses treating him “worked for days without proper protective gear and faced constantly changing protocols.” Additionally, there have been federal funding cuts to public health preparedness and response activities: $1 billion less in FY 2013 than in FY 2002, a year in which the nation dealt with 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, and anticipated the SARS epidemic of 2003. Continue reading

Dallas Ebola case raises questions about care for the uninsured

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 joseph@healthjournalism.org.

"Ebola virions" by See Source - Charting the Path of the Deadly Ebola Virus in Central Africa. PLoS Biol 3/11/2005: e403 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030403. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ebola virions” from “Charting the Path of the Deadly Ebola Virus in Central Africa.” PLoS Biol 3/11/2005: e403 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030403. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

When Thomas Eric Duncan died Wednesday of Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, one of many questions that remained unanswered was why the hospital didn’t do more to diagnose and treat Duncan initially. On Sept. 25, Duncan walked into the hospital’s emergency room, was given antibiotics and sent home, according to coverage in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

The question about what happened on Sept. 25 is important because Duncan could have infected many other individuals between when he was sent home on Sept. 25 and when he returned on Sept. 28 and was put into isolation. Writing in The New York Times, Manny Fernandez and Dave Philipps suggest that Duncan might still be alive if he had been admitted on Sept. 25.

After his death, Duncan’s fiancée, Louise Troh, and other African-Americans, questioned whether Duncan had received substandard care. Continue reading

Defusing panic over Ebola by understanding R-nought

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Earlier today it was announced that Thomas Eric Duncan died in Dallas. Duncan, a Liberian national who contracted Ebola in Liberia, did not show symptoms on his journey to Dallas or immediately after his arrival. Various news outlets are reporting that travelers arriving in the United States from West Africa would have their temperatures taken and be asked to answer questionnaires ascertaining any possible exposure.

Given today’s events, it’s understandable that Internet speculation and media coverage have fanned the flames of public panic regarding Ebola. But reporters should be asking state and local epidemiologists if that panic is really justified.

Math can answer that question.

Continue reading

Patient condition terminology: Do you really know what ‘critical’ means?

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Some words are so familiar that it’s easy to assume you know what they mean – especially terms for a patient’s condition. Words such as “stable” and “critical” make it into health news all the time, but what do they really mean?

In light of the African Ebola epidemic, and the first diagnosis of Ebola on American soil, reporters should understand terms commonly used to describe a patient’s medical state or condition.

First, health writers should understand “vital signs” and what providers mean when they refer to vital signs as being normal. According to Medline Plus, “vital signs” include heart beat, breathing rate, temperature and blood pressure.  Continue reading

A collection of the latest Ebola stories, resources

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

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

 Photo: NIAID via Flickr

Photo: NIAID via Flickr

What I’m reading about Ebola today:

Possible second Ebola case in Dallas,” which may, of course, be related to “Experts question two-day delay in admitting Texas Ebola patient.” And now we learn that the “Ebola patient told hospital he had been to Liberia,” as well make use of a helpful interactive graphic on how contact tracing works. (Edited to add that last link.)

BioWorld Today has compiled a list of resources and stories about Ebola: “Special Report: The Push to Contain Ebola Virus.”

The World Health Organization has a page for Ebola situation assessments that it says will be updated Wednesday afternoon with information about a clinical trial of a vaccine. Continue reading

Addressing the controversy over ‘chronic Lyme disease’

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Image by Penn State via Flickr

Image by Penn State via Flickr

Covering Lyme disease can be a complicated endeavor. It’s hard to diagnose, and it’s even more difficult to decide what to call the ongoing symptoms. Janice Lynch Schuster reported on the controversy in The Washington Post, discussing both Lyme disease and its aftereffects.

According to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks), can cause fever, chills, and severe joint pain. However, detecting a tiny tick is a challenge, and the famous red bull’s-eye rash associated with Lyme-carrying tick bites doesn’t always occur. Many people suffer symptoms for months without a diagnosis, and those suffering the effects of Lyme disease are frequently brushed off by health care professionals, who dismiss symptoms as psychosomatic or stress-related.

As if that weren’t enough, the 300,000 people thought to be infected with Lyme disease each year may suffer chronic symptoms such as body pain or “brain fog” even after diagnosis and antibiotic treatment.  Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that 10 percent to 20 percent of people who are diagnosed with the disease and complete a two- to four-week course of antibiotics will “have lingering symptoms of fatigue, pain, or joint and muscle aches,” known as “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.”

However, other experts are quick to dismiss the idea of post-Lyme syndrome. It’s important for journalists writing about Lyme disease to understand the disagreement in the medical community over these lingering effects.

Continue reading

Mosquito-borne disease appears in West Indies

Jason Hidalgo

About Jason Hidalgo

Jason Hidalgo is a business reporter at the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal and a 2013-14 AHCJ Regional Health Journalism Fellow.

CDC-Frieden2

Photo: Len BruzzeseCDC Director Tom Frieden briefs the 2013-14 AHCJ Regional Health Journalism fellows on Monday morning.

A nasty virus just landed on America’s doorstep.

Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed the arrival of  “chikungunya” fever in the Caribbean. Frieden made the announcement Monday while talking to a group of West-based AHCJ Regional Health Journalism Fellows at the CDC in Atlanta.

News of two confirmed cases in the island of St. Martin in the West Indies was reported Friday by The Daily Herald following a press conference by health officials in the region.

Named from the phrase “that which bends up” in Mozambique’s Kimakondan language because of its symptoms, chikungunya was first isolated from a Tanzanian patient in 1953, according to the CDC. Chikungunya exhibits symptoms similar to the dengue virus, including fever, rashes, headache, nausea and muscle pain. The virus is also transmitted through mosquitoes.

Until recently, cases of chikungunya were primarily seen in Africa and Asia. No cases have been reported in the United States, making the Caribbean cases the closest confirmation yet in terms of proximity. Continue reading

#ahcj13 speakers featured in news about Boston Marathon bombings

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

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

If you attended Health Journalism 2013, you heard from plenty of Boston-based medical professionals, some of whom are in the news now talking about the Boston Marathon bombings. You might remember hearing from:

Ron Medzon, M.D., led AHCJ members through the SIM lab part of one of the field trips and talked with attendees about doctors and nurses communicating with patients and families about medical errors. Medzon, emergency room physician at Boston Medical Center, was on duty when victims of the bombing began arriving. He talked about the experience with Robin Young of WBUR-Boston.

Paul Summergrad, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, spoke about mental disorders at the conference, offers advice on how to care for the emotional wounds of the bombing in several articles:

And John Halamka, M.D., the chief information officer at, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, talked about communication and technology in the wake of the bombings in “Social media key in enabling quick provider response to Boston bombings,” by  Dan Bowman for FieceHealthIT. At the conference, he spoke about electronic health records.

Have you seen other panel speakers quoted in the news? If so, please let us know by posting links to the stories in the comments section.

Update: AHCJ member Naseem S. Miller, of Internal Medicine News Digital Network, interviewed Medzon and a doctor who was in the medical tent at the finish line about their experiences.

Update: AHCJ member Leana Wen writes on NPR’s Shots blog about treating patients in the aftermath of the bombing while wondering if the next patient she saw was going to be her husband.

Las Vegas hospital sends 1,500 patients with mental health issues to other cities

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

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

Nevada has been shipping mental health patients out of state as it has cut funding for mental health services, according to a Sacramento Bee investigation.

In recent years, as Nevada has slashed funding for mental health services, the number of mentally ill patients being bused out of southern Nevada has steadily risen, growing 66 percent from 2009 to 2012. During that same period, the hospital has dispersed those patients to an ever-increasing number of states.

Cynthia Hubert, Phillip Reese and Jim Sanders report that Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, the primary state psychiatric hospital, put more than 1,500 patients on Greyhound buses bound for other cities.

The reporters reviewed bus receipts kept by Nevada’s mental health division. Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services has had a contract with Greyhound since July 2009, a bus company spokesman said. He also revealed that “Greyhound has contracts with ‘a number’ of hospitals around the country, but declined to identify them.”

Mental health professionals in other places are quoted as saying putting someone with a mental illness on a bus is risky and several said their counties don’t do it.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is investigating Rawson-Neal and the situation has prompted statements from California’s Senate president and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.