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Resources: AHCJ Data

 Association of Health Care Journalists » Health data Stories using health data

ProPublica offers rebuttal to Rand critique of Surgeon Scorecard
Not unexpectedly, ProPublica has published a response to the Rand Corporation’s recent 20-page critique of the journalism organization’s Surgeon Scorecard, a searchable database of complication rates for surgeons performing several elective operations. In a Rand summary of the...

Workshop will help reporters translate medical research to audiences accurately
Even if you only cover health care occasionally, you run across myriad medical studies and health claims. The results and claims often seem conflicting and confusing. But understanding evidence-based medicine will help journalists explore for their audiences the science and the policy decisions...

Digging deeper into the Census’ new health insurance stats
Two fellow AHCJ core topic leaders, Susan Heavey and Joseph Burns, have looked at aspects of the recent census report that documents a sharp decline in the uninsured rate. (Susan’s look at poverty and gender is here and Joe’s overview is here). It’s also worth taking a look at four points...

Calif. publishes better insurance price and quality data, but gaps remain
California has embraced the Affordable Care Act in big way. It launched one of the first and most robust state-run health insurance exchanges, and expanded its Medicaid program (known as Medi-Cal) to enroll the uninsured. As a result, the state’s uninsured rate dropped from 6.5 million residents...

Tips on using Excel to get a handle on large data files
In the age of big data and large datasets available through the CDC, the NIH, and other entities, it helps to know what to do with all that information. One tool for manipulating it – especially since so much is provided in CSV files that easily open in spreadsheets – is Excel. Consider, for...

Annual Exhibit of Premiums, Enrollment, and Utilization

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which represents insurance commissioners from around the country, compiles statistics on annual enrollment by health insurer for individual plans and small group policies, as well as certain information on premiums and utilization of services.

These data tables include enrollment for the individual and group markets in each state. This includes both those who enrolled using the health insurance marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act, as well as so-called off-exchange enrollment (through private exchanges or directly with insurance companies). The second table includes utilization statistics for each plan for 2014 and 2013. Figures for California are not included because data for the state is incomplete.

Data to research medical education, training

In its efforts for more public data about physician residency programs, AHCJ has worked with Doximity Inc. to provide members the first comprehensive national research on residency programs.

Doximity, in collaboration with U.S. News & World Report, has granted AHCJ members access to its complete 2014 research.

Use data to cover the Affordable Care Act

Katherine HempsteadThe Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has six databases on its "Reform by the Numbers" website that can be useful for reporters covering health care. In an exclusive briefing at an AHCJ New York chapter meeting in June 2014, the Foundation's Katherine Hempstead, Ph.D., discussed the highlights of the databases.

The databases can answer many questions, such as whether consumers are having trouble paying their sky-high deductibles or whether waiting lines are growing at doctors’ offices. Want to know how your state exchange differs from others? This data can help. Hempstead also offers ideas for stories that can be mined from the data no matter your technical abilities.

Tiptoeing into Medicare data

The volume of public data on our health care system keeps growing and growing. AHCJ board member and veteran health journalist Charles Ornstein shares some of his favorite sites.

Medicare payments data by state

The government release of information about Medicare payments to health professionals, a total of $72 billion in the single year of 2013, means unprecedented access to details of how public funds are spent. For 35 years - until 2014 - the data have been off limits to the public. The release has already generated stories by health journalists, with possibilities for more stories in the weeks and months ahead. To help with these stories, AHCJ has broken down the data by state in spreadsheet format for members to download.

Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA site

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA site has been described as “one of the coolest sites to hit hospital finances in years. It enables you get to get up-to-date financial information and debt. You can also download the results and show them to experts for quotes.”

Quick Health Data Online: Access to county-level health status data

The Quick Health Data Online system, from the HHS Office on Women’s Health, provides state- and county-level data for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories and possessions. Data are available by gender, race and ethnicity and come from a variety of national and state sources. The system is organized into eleven main categories, including demographics, mortality, natality, reproductive health, violence, prevention, disease and mental health. Within each main category, there are numerous subcategories.

Medicare provider charge data

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has released data showing what hospitals across the country charge Medicare for the same treatment or procedure. This allows a basis for some local or regional comparisons and a starting point for stories on hospital costs. Get the data and documentation.

Hospital inspections data

AHCJ has obtained data including information about inspections of acute and critical access hospitals since Jan. 1, 2011. The data came from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These downloadable files include information about the inspections of these hospitals after a complaint.

To understand what facilities and inspections are included – and NOT included – in this dataset, you should carefully read all of the documentation on the site www.hospitalinspections.org.

Integrated Health Interview Series

The Integrated Health Interview Series is a consistently-coded version of data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1963-present, including over 10,000 variables on health behaviors, health conditions, and health care access and use, and is available for free over the Internet.

Numbers reveal how often, or how rarely, states check doctors’ disciplinary records

How often does your state medical board search doctors in the National Practitioner Data Bank? Surprisingly not often, according to data provided to the Association of Health Care Journalists by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the data bank.

AHCJ and other media groups have been pushing the government to restore unfettered access to the Public Use File of the data bank, citing important stories that journalists have written about lax oversight of doctors by state medical boards.

AHCJ requested data from HRSA so reporters could see how often their states check the backgrounds of medical doctors and osteopaths, as well as interns and residents. The numbers are available in two different charts.

National Practitioner Data Bank Public Use File

The NPDB is a confidential system that compiles malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. For years, HRSA has made a public version of it available without identifying information about the health providers.

In September 2011, the agency removed the file from its website. The government said it did so because reporters were able to link information in the data bank to specific doctors, and the law prohibits the public use file from identifying doctors. AHCJ and several other journalism organizations protested the action and appealed for restoration of the file.

In November, HRSA restored the file but with restrictions that prevent users from using the dataset alone or with other data to indentify individuals. Investigative Reporters and Editors, working with AHCJ and the Society of Professional Journalists, has posted the a version of the data that predates those restrictions for download, free to the public.

Hiding in plain sight: California hospital data

Does your local hospital place more cardiac stents than others? Do more of its patients leave the emergency room without being seen? Does it have a high level of C-section births? These questions and others are relatively easy to answer thanks to a data gold mine kept by the obscure California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. It doesn't matter if your hospital is public, nonprofit or for-profit, data on its patients and services are available online.

Charles Ornstein, senior reporter at ProPublica and president of AHCJ's board of directors, will guide you through using the data to answer those questions and more.

HHS hospital mortality and readmission data

Learn how to use the data

ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein has written an article showing how the data can be used. When the data were originally released, AHCJ held a webinar that provides an introduction to this data, including ideas on how to use the data in your own area. An MP3 recording of the webinar is available.

Two tip sheets also will provide guidance on using spreadsheets:

Intro to investigating health data using spreadsheets

Finding patterns and trends in health data: Pivot tables in spreadsheets

The "Outcome of Care Measures" from the U.S. Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is an attempt to show what happens after patients with certain conditions receive hospital care.

Using this data – also available from Hospital Compare – you can identify hospitals in your state, community or ZIP code with worse-than-expected hospital outcomes for one or multiple years. By filtering and sorting with spreadsheet software, you can quickly compare hospitals. Numbers can be a start — not the end — of a story. Remember that these numbers only mean so much. Using data can give you a valuable tip sheet to generate ideas and questions in your pursuit of a story.

The AHCJ version of the data should help you understand outcome measures, namely 30-day mortality rates and readmission rates. These figures help you understand, for particular conditions, whether a hospital's rates are in line with national averages, significantly better or significantly worse.

Global Health Data Exchange at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation maintains the Global Health Data Exchange (or GHDx), a sort of clearinghouse for global public health data sets.

Nursing Homes: Special Focus Facility Initiative

On May 21, 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released the most recent list of nursing homes in its Special Focus Facility Initiative. These are homes that "(a) have had a history of serious quality issues and (b) are included in a special program to stimulate improvements in their quality of care."

The SFF Initiative is intended to address nursing homes that cycle in and out of compliance based on inspections. Nursing homes in this program are visited in person by survey teams twice as frequently as other nursing homes (about twice per year).

This list includes new additions to the SFF initiative, nursing homes that have failed to show significant improvement, nursing homes that have shown significant improvement, nursing homes that have sustained significant improvement for about 12 months and nursing homes that were either terminated by CMS from participation in Medicare and Medicaid within the past few months, or voluntarily chose not to continue such participation. 

Analyze patient satisfaction surveys to evaluate local hospitals

Surgeon operating as an example of what data is available through Hospital Compare from the Department of Health and Human Services.Beginning in March 2008, the federal government began publicly reporting patient satisfaction measures for hospitals across the United States. The survey tool, known as the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Health Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey, is the first attempt by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to standardize survey results of patients' perspectives of hospital care.

AHCJ has compiled Excel files that allow you to compare more than three hospitals at a time, using spreadsheet or database software to filter, sort and use other analysis tools with precision.

By looking at data for hospitals in your community or state, you may be able to quickly spot trends. Does one chain have a better track record than another? Do for-profit hospitals perform better than nonprofits? How about public hospitals? 

Finding patterns and trends in health data: Pivot tables in spreadsheets

Excel pivot tables are a powerful way to organize, interpret and manipulate numerical data. In this tip sheet, reporters will learn the skills necessary to apply these tables in real-world situations, including analyzing the Nursing Home Compare data.

Medicare's Nursing Home Compare database

Courtesy of the CDC and Brian Donnelly, LifeSpan FurnishingsNursing Home Compare uses data compiled from inspections and compares health and fire safety concerns as well as quality measures and staffing information from every Medicare and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the country.

Nursing Home Compare, according to the Medicare Web site, is meant to provide information to help individuals, family members, caregivers, and those who assist them find and compare nursing homes and make informed decisions about nursing home care.

AHCJ has reduced key elements in Nursing Compare data into a more manageable formats in Excel spreadsheets.

Intro to investigating health data using spreadsheets

Excel tutorialThis tutorial will give you a jumpstart on using spreadsheets to investigate health data.

While it's important to remember that a spreadsheet can give you a lead but can't replace your news judgment, this will help you navigate around spreadsheets, understand some basic references and learn some good practices in dealing with data.

Data files from the National Center for Health Statistics

The National Center for Health Statistics offers downloadable public-use data files through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's FTP file server. Data sets, documentation and questionnaires from NCHS surveys and data collection systems are available.

Community Health Data Initiative

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Institute of Medicine launched this initiative to help consumers and communities get more value out of the nation's wealth of health data. It includes a number of web tools, reports and downloadable data.


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