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U.S. surgeon general, VA med chief speak at Health Journalism 2016 Date: 04/28/16

More than 600 attendees gathered for Health Journalism 2016, hearing from the U.S. surgeon general, the chief medical official for Veterans Affairs, and city health commissioners after a year of cities facing crises.

The annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists ran April 7-10 in Cleveland.

Conference attendees heard from – and interacted with – top-notch researchers, well-regarded educators, effective clinicians, prize-winning journalists and authors, and many more experts on a vast array of health topics.

The conference began with journalists launching a covey of Tweets about their experiences during a day of field trips to hosts Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University research, medical and training facilities – and came back with a flock of story ideas. That first day also included an assortment of journalism workshops, with practical sessions on understanding health issues, reporting, writing and managing your career.

That evening began with a kickoff roundtable – “Covering the health angles of cities facing crises” – featuring a discussion among city health commissioners Natoya Walker Minor, M.P.A., of Cleveland; Melba R. Moore, M.S., C.P.H.A., of St. Louis; Leana S. Wen, M.D. M.Sc., of Baltimore; and Abdul El-Sayed, M.D., D.Phil., of Detroit.

All the panelists are responsible for the public’s health and safety in what they called “legacy cities,” older urban cities that have been under siege with issues that have kept them in the headlines.

Wen, who also is an emergency room physician, addressed the limitations of fighting health disparities, including violence, strictly from inside the hospital walls. It has been almost a year since national media attention focused on Baltimore after Freddie Gray, a 21-year-old African American man, died under mysterious circumstances after being taken into police custody. The city is still reeling from those and other events in the city.

“In Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, the life expectancy is 20 years shorter than it is in other neighborhoods,” Wen said. According to Wen, there is a deep misunderstanding about what is going on in communities. “It is not just about a lot of angry people out there.  It is about deep trauma and mental illness.”

The next days were filled with panels and spotlight speakers, starting with an early news briefing on Friday with David J. Shulkin, M.D., undersecretary of health for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Shulkin’s news briefing came the same day USA Today published a story about VA officials falsifying veterans’ wait times, an issue that has been in the news since 2014.

The claim that VA supervisors ordered employees to report shorter wait times than veterans actually experienced comes from data that’s nearly two years old, Shulkin said. “This has been our top priority since I became undersecretary,” he said. He credits 20 million additional “provider hours” of care, and the use of pharmacists to design prescription drug treatment plans.

He promised that the VA will become more veteran-centric. He vowed that by the end of this year same-day appointments for medical and mental health care will be available to those who need it across the system (right now that’s offered by 34 facilities).  He bragged about improvements in various socioeconomic factors, including a 40 percent reduction in homeless vets over the past four years.

“The issue that Congress has been clear with us on is that we are an organization that needs to regain public trust,” he said. He spoke of pending legislation that sets accountability standards and would allow the department to increase the salaries of its hospital leaders – some, he said, are making only one-third of what their civilian counterparts make in the hospital next door.

Other panels included world-class experts covering the business of health, public health, policy, research, clinical care and global health concerns. Panels gave attendees ideas and resources about a variety of topics, including concussions, health care costs, lead contamination in water supplies, opioid misuse and more.

Saturday’s luncheon speaker, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., the surgeon general of the United States, promised to respond to the country’s opioid epidemic by mobilizing the medical community and issuing the first surgeon general’s report on substance abuse, addiction and health later this year.

He said he hoped the report would persuade the public to view addiction “not as a moral failing but as a chronic disease” that deserves treatment and compassion.

Alcohol will be included with other potentially addictive substances, Murthy indicated, responding to a question from Carla Johnson of The Associated Press.

Months before the report is published, a letter will go out to 1.1 million physicians, nurses, physician assistants and dentists announcing the surgeon general’s drive to reduce narcotic use and improve prescribing practices.

The goal: to help medical professionals treat pain effectively while minimizing the potential for addiction.

“We want people to reach for non-opioid options whenever possible,” said Murthy, the first Indian American to serve as the nation’s top doctor.

Another luncheon highlight was the recognition of journalists who did the best work of 2015, winners of the annual Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.


  • Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

  • Cleveland Clinic

  • University Hospitals

  • MetroHealth

Endowing sponsors

  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

  • The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust

  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation


  • Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute

  • Global Center for Health Innovation

  • The Commonwealth Fund

  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

  • John A. Hartford Foundation

  • Missouri Foundation for Health

  • California Health Care Foundation

  • Colorado Health Foundation

  • The Pew Charitable Trusts

  • Rhode Island Foundation

  • Health Foundation for Western and Central New York

  • Journal of the American Osteopathic Association

  • The JAMA Network

  • Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

  • Laura and John Arnold Foundation

  • Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, Cleveland

  • Better Health Partnership

  • Destination Cleveland