About AHCJ: General News

Nearly 800 attend AHCJ's annual conference Date: 03/20/13

Health Journalism 2013A record crowd attending Health Journalism 2013 saw AHCJ unveil its own searchable news application of hospital inspection reports, heard experts in virtually every field, and marked the group’s 15th anniversary.

The annual event drew nearly 800 attendees to the four-day gathering in Boston. The conference featured panel discussions, workshops, field trips, showcase speakers and a news briefing. The sessions covered the medical research, health care policy, clinical practice, public health, consumer health and the business of health care.

In the past several years, AHCJ conferences have included news briefing sessions that have allowed attendees to file stories with their own newsrooms. This year, AHCJ made news itself with the launch of hospitalinspections.org, a free, searchable news application that compiles thousands of federal inspection reports for hospitals around the nation since January 2011.

The move follows years of advocacy by AHCJ urging the government to release the deficiency reports in an electronic format. Until now, reporters and the public had to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to obtain the documents, a process fraught with delays that can stymie timely public knowledge of problems at hospitals.

AHCJ’s board of directors praised CMS for making the information available and working collaboratively with AHCJ to bring greater transparency to this important information.

“Being able to easily review the performance of your local hospital is vital for health care journalists and for the public,” said AHCJ President Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica in New York. 

The same week, AHCJ sent a letter urging The Joint Commission, the largest private accreditor of hospitals, to likewise make public information from its inspections of hospitals. The Joint Commission does complaint and routine inspections separately from CMS, but as a private agency it is not subject to FOIA. As a result, thousands of hospital inspection reports still remain under wraps. The commission has rejected two previous AHCJ requests for this information, saying disclosure would compromise its efforts to improve hospital quality.

“The AHCJ board cannot accept the notion that patients are best protected by keeping hospital problems secret,” Ornstein wrote to commission president Dr. Mark Chassin. “Such reasoning also flies in the face of growing consensus among health care leaders and policy makers about the importance of transparency to improve medical care quality.”

The new hospitalinspections.org website includes the results of government inspections of acute-care hospitals and critical-access (rural) hospitals resulting from complaints. It does not include reports of deficiencies found at psychiatric hospitals or long-term care hospitals, nor does it include the results of routine hospital inspections.

The inspection reports have been configured to be easily searchable by keyword, city, state and hospital name. The website is open to anyone but only AHCJ members have access to additional resources to help journalists use the data for their stories. 

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

In his address at the AHCJ awards luncheon, David Goldhill, president and chief executive officer of the cable network GSN, described his family’s battles with health care failures and hospital billing errors, captured in his new book “Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father — And How We Can Fix It.” Several years ago his father went into the hospital with apparent pneumonia and within weeks died of secondary, preventable infections. More recently, his young son needed an emergency appendectomy. The family had to fill out the same detailed forms twice and wait five hours for surgery, while the boy was doubled over in pain, and a morphine prescription took 90 minutes to arrive even with the pharmacy a mere 100 feet away.

Why are such experiences so dishearteningly common? Because, he said, the incentives in the health care system are fundamentally broken: The way to make money in health care is by “practicing excessive care at high prices, at questionable value.”

He challenged the contention that consumers don’t know enough to be put in charge of their own health care. Our present mediators — public and private insurers — are doing a terrible job, he said. “A system based on our needs instead of theirs will work better. Even if we’re idiots.”

On the conference opening afternoon, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick delivered the opening welcome. He called the 2006 Massachusetts health insurance reform law a success in that it gives residents nearly universal care, with more businesses offering health care and nearly 90 percent of residents having a primary care physician.

 “We are healthier because of it,” Patrick said. “Women, minorities and low-income people have experienced the biggest health improvements, but it’s been true, really, across the board.”

Kickoff speakers oncologist Jerome Groopman and endocrinologist Pamela Hartzband talked about their own differences in a session titled “When experts disagree: The art of medical decision making.” The husband-and-wife team have different “medical minds.”

Groopman and Hartzband told attendees of Health Journalism 2013 on Thursday night that the way we think about medicine – and the way statistics are presented – can mislead both patients and doctors. And that’s especially true today, they say, with so much conflicting medical news in print, on the air and online.

“The power that you have [as health journalists] is much greater than the power we have as physicians,” Groopman said, adding that a majority of his patients get their medical information from newspapers, radio, television and the Internet.

Another conference highlight was the ever-popular Freelance PitchFest. This year, it featured opportunities for 72 independent journalists to pitch their story ideas to 22 editors during one-on-one sessions.

To read more details about the conference, go to healthjournalism.org/blog/tag/ahcj13/.