Tag Archives: propublica

New tool allows searches of nursing home inspection reports

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), a Colorado-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, and as such curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on aging issue resources and tip sheets at judith@healthjournalism.org.

For the first time, reporters anywhere in the country can search nursing home inspection reports online and see how often common problems pop up.

Thank you, ProPublica, for creating Nursing Home Inspect. It’ll make our jobs much easier, and be a valuable source of story ideas for many months to come.

Included at the moment are more than 20,000 reports from government inspections of 14,565 nursing homes, most since January 2011. The database will be updated monthly, ProPublica says, and that will make it even more helpful as time goes on.

Core Topics
Health Reform
Aging
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Deficiencies are noted when nursing homes are unclean or unsafe, or when staff harm elderly or disabled patients, or give medication inappropriately, or violate other standards of care. (These are just a few examples; there are many, many more.) Grades are awarded depending on the seriousness of the problem observed, with “A” being the least severe and “L” the most severe.

The inspection reports were posted online by the government in July – a first-of-its-kind public disclosure – but not in a format that made it possible to search them by keywords, cities, or nursing homes’ names. That’s where ProPublica’s new app comes in. Charlie Ornstein of ProPublica has written up helpful tips on using the database.

Reporters might want to begin by seeing which nursing homes in their city or state have been cited for deficiencies deemed most egregious, those with a letter grade of “K” or “L.” These are the facilities you might want to focus on if you were doing an investigation. (You’d surely want to know, however, if the problems identified persisted over time, and that kind of information isn’t yet available via ProPublica. To get it, you’ll have to ask government regulators to let you look at previous inspection reports.) Continue reading

Investigative reports lead to Senate investigation into painkiller promotion

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Following up on reporting efforts from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today and ProPublica, a Senate committee has launched investigation into the pharmaceutical industry’s conflict-of-interest-laden promotion of pain management drugs, one of which may or may not be related to one pharma-tied patient organization’s Tuesday announcement that is was closing up shop “due to irreparable economic circumstances.”

screen-shot-2012-05-09-at-73727-pmThus far, the investigation has consisted of strongly worded rebukes and requests for further disclosure to the abovementioned American Pain Foundation, among others, in the form of letters from Sens. Max Baucus and Charles Grassley. PDFs of the relevant letters can be found in this press release from Baucus’ Senate finance committee.

In the letters, the senators directly cite the investigative efforts of AHCJ members Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber and John Fauber.

Sen. Max Baucus

Sen. Max Baucus

Ornstein, AHCJ’s board president, and Tracy Weber, his fellow ProPublica senior reporter, published their investigation into the American Pain Foundation in ProPublica and The Washington Post in December. As they write in their post on the foundation’s demise, “The group received 90 percent of its $5 million in funding in 2010 from the drug and medical-device industry, ProPublica found, and its guides for patients, journalists and policymakers had played down the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits.”

Fauber’s reporting, the result of a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today, focused on the tangled web of money, organizations and influence through which the pharmaceutical industry helped propel the runaway growth of painkiller prescriptions over the past decade and a half.

Sen. Charles Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley

In his report on the senate investigation he helped inspire, Fauber writes that the finance committee is “seeking financial and marketing records from three companies that make opioid drugs, including Oxycontin and Vicodin, and seven national organizations.” The legislators are seeking records of financial transactions between pharmaceutical manufacturers and patient groups from as far back as 1997, as well as details on any federal funding provided to the groups.

Project looks at problems in how deaths are investigated

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The results of a yearlong joint investigation of the American autopsy system by ProPublica, Frontline and NPR show that problems in the death investigation system throughout the country have led to innocent people being sent to prison, “allowed the guilty to go free and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing.” When autopsies aren’t done, diagnostic errors go undetected and opportunities to learn more about medicine are lost.

One story of patient rights and legal wrangling sports the remarkable headline “Why Can’t Linda Carswell Get Her Husband’s Heart Back?” It hinges, among other things, on the simple fact that “Even though the Institute of Medicine has reported that medication errors affect an estimated 1.5 million patients per year, it is not typical to conduct toxicology tests as part of clinical autopsies. They are routine in forensic autopsies.”

Another piece takes a broader view, exploring the reasons behind and consequences of the fact that autopsies are performed on only about one in 20 patients who die in hospitals when, 50 years ago, the rate was one in two.

Hospitals aren’t required to perform autopsies – the Joint Commission hasn’t included autopsy rates in its accreditation process since 1971 – and neither Medicare nor private insurers reimburse hospitals for the procedures, which Allen found cost about $1,275 each. The implications of these financial disincentives, combined with related factors such as some physicians’ confidence that new diagnostic tools such as MRIs and CT scans provide such accurate results that they obviate the need for postmortem work, are far-reaching.

Diagnostic errors, which studies show are common, go undiscovered, allowing physicians to practice on other patients with a false sense of security. Opportunities are lost to learn about the effectiveness of medical treatments and the progression of diseases. Inaccurate information winds up on death certificates, undermining the reliability of crucial health statistics.

Furthermore…

A 2002 review of academic studies by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that when patients were autopsied, major errors related to the principle diagnosis or underlying cause of death were found in one of four cases. In one of 10 cases, the error appeared severe enough to have led to the patient’s death.

Other stories in the project report that suspicious deaths of the elderly are rarely investigated and that the deaths of children “pose special technical challenges for forensic pathologists.”

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Medicaid programs slow to act against system exploiters

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

At ProPublica, senior reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have published the latest turn in their ongoing analysis of conflicts of interest, problem physicians and the disciplinary systems meant to reign them in. This time, they look at Medicaid in Florida and find at least three instances when the state “allowed physicians to keep treating and prescribing drugs to the poor amid clear signs of possible misconduct.”

Their piece revolves around those key examples – two of which were, in all seriousness, brought to their attention by a Scientologist-run watchdog website – and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing for the details. Below, I’ve just highlighted the bigger picture.

In general, Ornstein and Weber found, state Medicaid programs, as well as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which doesn’t track relevant state data, have failed to act on information which seems to strongly indicate that certain physicians are abusing or exploiting state programs.

Medicaid programs across the country have long had evidence that physicians have been prescribing risky drugs in excess and perhaps to the wrong patients. These prescriptions also racked up huge bills for the programs.

But like Florida, many states did not act on that evidence. Last year, (Sen. Charles) Grassley demanded data from each state about its highest prescribers of pain pills and antipsychotics, and he asked state and federal officials to determine whether the prescriptions written by these doctors were legitimate.

Health stories win at ONA for investigations, multimedia

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Online News Association has honored two of this year’s bumper crop of excellent health pieces with top honors in their respective categories at the 2011 Online Journalism Awards, with nods going to pioneering work by both ProPublica and The Washington Post.

For ProPublica, AHCJ member Robin Field’s examination of the nation’s Medicare-funded dialysis system and what this oft-overlooked federal budget item tells us about the implementation of “socialized medicine” in America earned the Gannett Foundation Award for Innovative Investigative Journalism in the Small Site category. Since its publication, Fields’ award-winning piece has continued to evolve, adding data and updates as they become available.

Also nominated in the category were ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs and Investigative West’s Livesaving Drugs, Deadly Consequences.

The other prominent health winner was The Washington Post‘s video-heavy “Traumatic Brain Injury: Coming home a different person,” which beat out another multimedia piece, the Los Angeles TimesDylan’s Brain, in the large site category of the Multimedia Feature Presentation award.

Earlier: Health journalists poised for strong showing at 2011 ONA Awards

Pharma discloses free meals, ProPublica expands database

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In his latest report, ProPublica senior reporter and AHCJ board president Charles Ornstein explains exactly how, since its founding last October, ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database of pharma payments to physicians has mushroomed from 30,000 entries to more than half a million. They answer, he writes, has a lot to do with free meals and other perks that pharmaceutical companies are starting to publish ahead of strict federal disclosure regulations which will go into effect in 2013.

Pharmaceutical company representatives say the meals serve an important educational purpose, and they have adopted their own set of rules for such interactions.

A voluntary code of conduct adopted by the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America says that “it is appropriate for occasional meals to be offered as a business courtesy” to doctors and members of their staffs attending information presentations by sales reps.

In such cases, the guidelines say, the presentations have to “provide scientific or educational value,” and the meals should be “modest” by local standards and not part of an entertainment or recreational event. Meals for spouses and take-out meals are not appropriate, the guide says.

To put it all into perspective, Ornstein demonstrates with numbers from Pfizer that, while the meal numbers have certainly increased the number of entries in their database, they haven’t had as significant an impact upon the overall dollar amounts in question.

Relatively, the meals didn’t add up to much money. Pfizer’s meals amounted to only $18 million last year, compared to $34 million for promotional speakers and $108 million for research.

As with previous installments, Ornstein, Tracy Weber and Dan Nguyen’s database work has spawned follow-up reports around the country. In fact, the response was such that Ornstein and Weber even took the step of re-nationalizing the localizations of their story, with the follow-up “News Reports Cite Drop in Physician Speaking Fees.” Below, I’ve linked to a few notable localizations and follow-up stories. If you’ve got another one to point out, add it in the comments.

ProPublica’s Allen opens window into screening business

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In an investigation co-published with his old friends at the Las Vegas Sun, ProPublica’s Marshall Allen offers a revealing investigation into Heart Check America, a company whose high-pressure sales tactics and dubious quality record have earned it reams of consumer complaints and attention from state authorities.

Allen’s first-person anecdotal opener alone is enough to make the story worth reading, and the fact that he backs it up with thorough investigative work that appears to have already launched probes in two states is just the icing on the cake.

Heart Check America’s business model is eerily similar to that of the time-share industry, which is exactly where manager David Haddad earned his business stripes before being forced out by a state attorney general. Patients are lured in with the promise of free tests, then subjected to high-pressure sales tactics until they fork over thousands of dollars for long-term medical screening packages which they likely didn’t need in the first place.

It’s a classic investigation with evidence unearthed from a legion of sources; here’s just a sample of what Allen has assembled:

Colorado regulators checked Heart Check America’s Denver center. They found a litany of deficiencies, including no proof that staffers operating the scanner were qualified, no controls to ensure patients received as little radiation as possible, and that tests were being conducted without doctors’ orders.

Inspectors also found that the clinic was not supervised by a physician licensed in Colorado and that test results weren’t being read by a qualified radiologist or delivered to patients in a timely manner.

Allen’s work plays right into the debate over the efficacy of various screening procedures, especially those applied to low-risk patients, which makes one paragraph at the end of the story particularly ominous.

Haddad said he is continuing to look for opportunities in the imaging business. He has formed a new company, Cancer Check America, in Hilton Head, S.C, to focus on cancer screening.

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ProPublica investigates ties between doc groups, industry

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

With an assist from Sen. Chuck Grassley, ProPublica senior reporters Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, AHCJ’s board president, have published their latest data-heavy investigation (USA Today version). This time, their journey into the myriad avenues pharmaceutical companies pursue to influence physicians has taken them into the world of professional societies and annual conferences. The duo writes that despite the power of these groups, their dependence upon millions and millions of dollars in industry funding has often slipped under the radar.

Professional groups … are a logical target for the makers of drugs and medical devices. They set national guidelines for patient treatments, lobby Congress about Medicare reimbursement issues, research funding and disease awareness, and are important sources of treatment information for the public.

Their strongest anecdote comes from the Heart Rhythm Society, a group which, in 2010, pulled in about $8 million – half their total income – directly from manufacturers of the drugs and devices their members specialize in prescribing for, or implanting in, patients. The society has started to disclose these relationships, but perhaps not to limit them, the reporters write. “’This is our business,’ said Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, the incoming society president. ‘We either get out of the business or we manage these relationships. That’s what we’ve chosen to do.’”

The companies also pay two-thirds of the society’s board members speaking or consulting fees, a situation Weber and Ornstein found is far from unusual. In addition to these financial conflicts, the reporters gathered some fascinating examples of just how deep industry influence can run. My personal favorite comes from the conference of a well-known collection of cardiologists.

Last month, the American College of Cardiology attached tracking devices to doctors’ conference ID badges. Many physicians were unaware that exhibitors had paid to receive real-time data about who visited their booths, including names, job titles and how much time they spent.

For more examples, I recommend Robert Durrell’s photographs from the 2011 Heart Rhythm Society annual conference, which show dozens of industry-sponsored objects alongside the amount of money each company paid for that particular privilege. Dan Nguyen and Nicolas Rapp put together an infographic that expands upon a similar theme.

Much of the disclosure data the ProPublica team depended on for their reports was released in response to a request for informationGrassley sent out in late 2009. His investigation has started to yield some preliminary results.

There are fledgling efforts to push medical societies toward stricter limits on industry funding: 34 groups have signed a voluntary code of conduct calling for public disclosure of funding and limits on how many people on guideline-writing panels have industry ties.

“The general feeling is that the societies need to be independent of the influence of companies,” said Dr. Norman B. Kahn Jr., chief executive of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies, which helped draft the code.

Sponsored segments, hospital partnerships creep into news outlets

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Blythe Bernhard takes a look at the fruits of the slow, steady advances hospitals and health providers have made into local television and print news. In recent years, sponsored segments and partnered content have insinuated themselves into broadcasts, columns and news-esque advertising spaces.

According to Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-Columbia, Mo., partnership offers are more likely to come from medical institutions than from other sectors. There’s no denying that cash-strapped media outlets have welcomed the extra revenue, and the numbers show that providers have come out ahead as well.

tvnews

Photo by purple_onion via Flickr

Hospitals that promote their services during news broadcasts say the exposure is more effective than pure advertising. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota launched its own news department a decade ago to distribute its “Medical Edge” stories to media outlets nationwide. A Mayo survey showed patients’ stated preference for the hospital increased about 60 percent within three years of the news service’s launch. Hospital executives said the business value of “Medical Edge” was more than 10 times the cost of producing it, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

But media critics, including AHCJ member Gary Schwitzer, say that providing all that valuable exposure may involve ethical compromises on the part of news organizations. After all, they’re ceding some control over the content they air.

“It looks prestigious, it looks clean, it looks expert, but this is information that is coming from and being bought by one medical center source,” said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of Health News Review. “Who has vetted that to say that is the best information, and when are we going to hear from other players in town?”

And, by forming these partnerships, news organizations are allowing hospitals to become the gatekeepers for medical news, and thus indirectly allowing financial concerns to dictate what is considered newsworthy. To illustrate the quandry, Bernhard mentions a 10-month cancer prevention series that was created through a partnership between a St. Louis local hospital and a TV news station. It includes weekly news segments, regular two-minute paid ads during commercial breaks and even monthly phone banks and online chats. Cancer prevention is certainly news, but AHCJ’s president told Bernhard there may be other reasons why it’s driving this particular news and advertising blitz.

Cancer is big business for hospitals competing in a “medical arms race” to attract patients with insurance to fund hospital investments in MRI scanners and robotic surgical instruments, said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and senior reporter at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative newsroom based in New York.
“There’s a reason they chose cancer instead of diabetes care for the uninsured population,” he said.
Even a medical topic as seemingly straightforward as cancer prevention generates differing viewpoints and requires health reporters to reach out to multiple sources, Ornstein said.

For disclosures of the Post-Dispatch‘s own partnerships, see the final subheading, “Popular topic.”

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Allen looks at present, future of Nev. transparency

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for the Las Vegas Sun, reporter Marshall Allen put a fitting cap on an award-winning investigative run at the paper with a story rounding up the state’s first steps toward transparency in medical error reporting. Through the lens of former Beth Israel Deaconess chief, transparency pioneer and blogger Paul Levy, Allen demonstrates just how much transparency in Nevada could benefit both hospitals and their patients. It’s potential that was created, in no small part, through the reporting that Allen and Alex Richards have done.

Over the course of the Sun’s two-year investigation, most Las Vegas hospitals refused to discuss patient safety issues. The Nevada Hospital Association has since 2002 lobbied against mandated public reporting of patient harm. But since the Sun’s investigation, and with legislation pending, the association has said it will begin posting patient injury and infection data on its hospital quality website.

Throughout the piece, Allen paints a sunny picture of a more transparent future, and uses examples from Massachusetts to dissolve any reservations readers might have.

Dr. Tejal Gandhi, Partners’ director of patient safety, said at first there was panic over posting on the hospitals’ websites the infections and injuries suffered by patients. People worried there would be a media frenzy or a rise in malpractice lawsuits, she said.

When the information became public, in 2009, The Boston Globe published one story but there was little other reaction, she said.

The hospitals have seen no increase in malpractice lawsuits. But it has brought a new focus on reducing certain infections and injuries, including the formation of task forces and establishment of standardized safety protocols.

Allen, who recently took a job with ProPublica, completed part of this series while on an AHCJ Media Fellowship on Health Performance, supported by the Commonwealth Fund. The series, which was reported with Richards, won a 2010 Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, the investigative reporting category in the 2010 Scripps Howard Awards, best in show for the print category of the National Headliner Awards and the 2011 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.