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Patient safety, reform, H1N1 top annual conference agenda Date: 04/26/10

More than 500 attendees of Health Journalism 2010 took advantage of news-breaking speakers, experts on the impact of health reform, ideas on pursu­ing patient safety stories and more. The Association of Health Care Journalists' four-day annual conference in Chicago featured field trips, workshops, panels, roundtables and news briefings focusing on health reform, public health and medi­cal device safety.

From day one, attendees filed stories from the conference.

In her news briefing on the confer­ence's first day, Health and Human Ser­vices Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predict­ed an "ongoing hand-to-hand combat" with health insurers over elements of the new sweeping health care legislation.

Sebelius said a challenge going for­ward in implementing the health care law - with some provisions going into effect in September but others not until 2014 - is countering the "misinforma­tion" sowed by critics. The challenge, she said, "is to very quickly become the ‘help desk' of America."

She noted that soon after President Ba­rack Obama signed the bill into law, some insurers claimed they had found a loophole allowing them to sidestep a provision be­ginning in 2010 that would prohibit de­nying children on the basis of preexisting conditions. Her department pushed back, Sebelius said, and "within 24 hours" talk of such a loophole evaporated.

Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., direc­tor of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented a report outlining the states' progress in fighting smoking. The report said national smoking rates had leveled off after years of declines. Frieden urged states to step up funding of anti-smoking ads, sales tax on cigarettes and "help lines" for smokers who want to quit.

Utah and California have the lowest rates of adult smokers (9.3 percent and 14 percent), while West Virginia (26.5 percent) and Indiana (26 percent) have the highest, according to the report. Frieden also urged states to spend more of the money raised by cigarette taxes on prevention programs.

Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., head of the Food and Drug Administration's devices center, announced the agency will make its regulation of infusion pumps stricter. He said the FDA will require design im­provements, more thorough testing, and inspections of the makers' facilities before the devices are approved.

"There have been problems with ev­ery kind of infusion pump on the market, across the entire industry," Shuren said.

These devices are used by millions of people to deliver antibiotics for infec­tions, chemotherapy for cancer, insulin for diabetes, and pain medication, among other drugs, Reuters Health reported. Of 56,000 reports of problems, there were 710 deaths.

A year of H1N1 stories brought to­gether a panel of experts who scored government, media and private sector re­sponse to the flu pandemic that began in April 2009.

Getting consistent health messages out in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, blogs, social media and the Internet was one of the leading challenges facing public health officials as the H1N1 flu pandemic news unfolded, the panelists agreed.

Peter Pronovost, M.D., Ph.D., in a keynote speech at the awards luncheon, en­couraged journalists to investigate patient safety in hospitals. He chose patient safety as a career path after watching his father die as a result of a medical error. He tells that story, as well as the story of his jour­ney from a researcher to an international leader in patient safety in his new book "Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor's Checklist Can Help Us Change Health Care from the Inside Out."

His efforts target improving health care through methods that are scientifi­cally rigorous but feasible at the bedside. His current cause is to reduce catheter-related bloodstream infections in their local hospitals, saying the infections cause "31,000 needless deaths" in the United States each year.

With his landmark study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Pro­novost was likely the first to implement a patient safety initiative successfully on a large scale. Using his system of checklist, culture change and measurement, he vir­tually eliminated the infection in Michi­gan and is taking his checklist national and international.

Journalists who signed up for confer­ence field trips spent a day studying health care firsthand.

One group attended a mini-med school in a state-of-the art, hands-on simulation center at the Feinberg School of Medicine; made a visit to the Renee Schine Crown Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Memorial's Pren­tice Women's Hospital; attended a dis­cussion with leaders of the NUGene Project, a biobank of genetic samples and electronic health records from more than 10,000 volunteers; and took a trip to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chica­go's world-renowned Center for Bionic Medicine.

The other group visited the CDC's Mobile Examination Center for the Na­tional Health and Nutrition Examina­tion Survey, obtaining embargoed data about hypertension and diabetes research. Attendees visited Jesse Brown VA Medi­cal Center, one of the most active in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and learn about the approach to veterans recently returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The group also learned more about the Vet­erans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture's computer ap­plication that enables clinicians to enter, review and continuously update all infor­mation connected with any patient.


Other conference highlights:

A series of sessions covered finding de­tailed and authoritative sources of online databases and maps to build resources and skills. The sessions included public and private funding of health care as well as examining the health and health-related issues of communities and neighbor­hoods. Experts from Dartmouth Atlas and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation guided journalists through rich data sources directly related to health. A representative of ESRI introduced a Web interface that allows journalists to create neighborhood boundaries and examine health-related details.

A special track of panels throughout the conference were designed to help journalists assess health reform - the out­look for hospitals, doctor shortages, how local and state governments are affected, how public policies are made through comparative effectiveness research, and how journalist can keep up with health reform's twists and turns.

Freelancers and editors spent time meeting during AHCJ's annual PitchFest. The session was created to give freelanc­ers an opportunity to sit down and dis­cuss ideas one-on-one with editors from selected publications.