About AHCJ: General News

Health Journalism 2019 sets attendance record Date: 05/17/19


Drawn by an influential lineup of speakers and panels – plus an intriguing offering of field trips – more than 800 conference-goers helped make AHCJ’s Health Journalism 2019 in Baltimore a record-setter in attendance.

In AHCJ’s 20 years of annual conferences, the increase in attendance has mirrored the public’s level of interest in health news and need for clear, accurate health care reporting. Today, health-care pocketbook issues, partisan politics and worrisome matters such as the re-emergence of measles and stubborn drug dependence epidemics are seen as topics likely to be front and center in upcoming elections.

From May 2 to May 5, health journalists attended more than 60 panels, including a carefully curated lineup guiding independent journalists toward success and informative sessions on how to cover aspects of the scientific revolution of genetics.

The official conference welcome and kickoff session featured Otis Brawley, M.D., a Bloomberg distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and former chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

Brawley, who is quick to remind health journalists of their value as truth-tellers, said he is focusing on the health disparities facing Americans, saying the nation needs “programs to try to overcome the lack of access … because poverty is the problem. It’s not your DNA; it’s your ZNA: Your ZIP code.”

Later, speaking on the panel “How precision medicine and immunotherapy are redefining the approach to cancer treatment,” Brawley noted, “The fact is cancer is incredibly complicated. There’s more trends in oncology than there is in fashion. Every couple of years, we have a new trend, a lot of them over-hyped.”

Joseph Sakran, M.D., M.P.A., M.P.H., a well-known presenter on the intersection of gun violence and public health policy, told attendees his personal story of inspiration to become an emergency surgeon. At age 17, he decided to pursue surgery as a career after treatment when a .38-caliber bullet ripped through his throat.

Sakran, assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine, may best be known on social media as the catalyst behind the @ThisIsOurLane Twitter account for medical professionals responding to a National Rifle Association’s tweet saying: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

“Not only are we not going to ‘stay in our lane,’” Sakran wrote on Twitter, “but we are going to do everything in our power to ensure that Americans in communities all across this nation are protected from these senseless tragedies.”

As attendees gathered at the Saturday luncheon honoring winners of the annual Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, the Baltimore City Health Department’s Rebecca Dineen, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, drew analogies of community-building health programs with forests of trees known to reach out through root systems to nourish the lesser among them.

The leader of a city program known as B’more for Healthy Babies, Dineen said she found inspiration in what she called “the Wood Wide Web” network for her role in helping to stitch together Baltimore’s disparate 55 neighborhoods so they connect in a healthy way – and racism and stress eventually cease to have an outsized impact on black maternal and infant health.

A wide range of panels exposed journalists to new ways of mastering medical study reporting, health podcasting, the genetics of mental illness and the timely topic of journalism’s role in the age of social media misinformation.

The annual Freelance PitchFest, sometimes referred to as “speed-dating for editors and writers” featured more than 70 journalists pitching stories to 20 assignment editors.

Conference field trips ferried health journalists to daylong educational excursions to Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, Health Care for the Homeless, Translational Tissue Engineering Center, the Carnegie Center for Surgical Innovation, the SPARC Center for Women, Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, Jason Fischer’s Dynamic Perception Lab, Visual Thinking Lab and the Perception & Mind Lab and a design studio of biomedical engineering students.

One well-attended First Amendment session, “Right to Know: How to get your hands on public records,” moderated by Felice Freyer, health reporter for the Boston Globe and AHCJ board vice president, drew more than 80 journalists and not a few memes after one presenter revealed that faithful federal freedom of information filers have taken to sending their long-neglected FOIA requests birthday cards.

At the annual membership meeting, AHCJ board president Ivan Oransky, M.D., of Medscape noted that the association provided fellowships and stipends so that 133 members could attend the conference – and another 58 non-conference fellowships in seven different programs over the past year.

Oransky noted that AHCJ’s reach extends worldwide with membership in 18 nations ranging from Australia to Sweden to Indonesia. Five members from Japan attended the conference. Of total membership, mainly in the United States, nearly 30 percent report journalism experience of 21 or more years and 42 percent have pursued journalism for 10 years or less.