The Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism recognize the best health reporting in print, broadcast and online media. The contest is run by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups.
The contest features a variety of categories and entries can include a wide range of health coverage including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics.
Contest entrants fill out a questionnaire that details how they reported the work they are submitting. AHCJ posts those questionnaires with the entries, allowing other journalists to learn about new sources, get story ideas and do similar reporting in their own communities.
Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism: 2017 winners
- Beat Reporting
- Trade Publications/Newsletters
- Investigative (large)
- Consumer/Feature (large)
- Consumer/Feature (small)
- Health Policy (large)
- Health Policy (small)
- Public Health (large)
- Public Health (small)
First Place: Helen Branswell's 2017 Body of Work; Helen Branswell, Stat
These five stories provide an overview of the work Helen Branswell does as Stat's infectious diseases and public health reporter. The first (chronologically) explored whether the trend towards giving flu shots in the mid-to-late summer risks undermining the effectiveness of a huge public health program. The second challenged the dogma that people should routinely take full courses of antibiotics even after their symptoms have resolved. The third used a large mumps outbreak in northwestern Arkansas to explore the problem of why mumps outbreaks are on the rise, even among vaccinated populations. The fourth revealed that the CDC and Puerto Rico's health department were at loggerheads over the health department's under-reporting of cases of Zika-induced microcephaly. The final article explored the potential consequences for the World Health Organization of the decision by new director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to appoint Zimbabwean president (since deposed) Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador.
Judges' comments: Helen Branswell exemplifies the best in beat reporting. She addresses a wide variety of issues that are very current and very important. Her stories are well sourced and beautifully written. Regardless of length, her clear and compelling writing style keeps readers hooked to the end of every story.
Second Place: Meredith Cohn's 2017 Body of Work; Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun
"Fatal overdoses leave medical examiner's office struggling with workload" is about how the opioid overdose epidemic has burdened medical examiners with an enormous and unsustainable workload and has threatened the reputation and accreditation of the nationally regarded office.
"Maryland emergency doctors find new life-saving use in old machine" is about how some of the nation's most respected trauma doctors got an old, unused machine off the back of a truck and now use it regularly to save some of the most severely injured gunshot victims and other severely injured patients even though many studies suggest it wouldn't be helpful.
"Growing drug use and changing drugs laws pose challenges for employers" is about how medical marijuana has caused problems for employers who don't want their workers using drugs but don't have a clear idea of what they should or are allowed to do about it.
"UMBC and Johns Hopkins lead effort to extend viability of organs and body parts for transplant" is about the teaming up of engineers and doctors from different universities to potentially transform organ transplantation by creating a way to preserve the organs outside the body for far longer.
"Christmas miracles? Science may have a say in some of this" is a holiday bright that seeks to explain why Rudolph's nose glows and the Grinch's heart expands and how Scrooge time travels, all without doctors having the benefit of actually examining the patients.
Third Place: April Dembosky's 2017 Body of Work; April Dembosky, KQED-San Francisco
April Dembosky's work this year demonstrates a range of reporting skills, from meeting relentless breaking news deadlines on Congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, to developing in-depth enterprise work, including a sound-rich, one-hour radio documentary.
All of her work showcases her unique ability to find original, even funny, angles on heavily covered health policy stories, and to identify the most compelling characters to illustrate complicated topics, even in the middle of a raging wildfire.
First Place: A 'cure' for autism at any cost; Brendan Borrell, Spectrum
For more than 30 years, desperate parents have been flocking to a remote campus in western Massachusetts to learn about the Son-Rise Program, which has been touted as a "cure" for their autistic children. This deeply reported story uncovers the complicated history of Son-Rise, the lack of scientific evidence to support it, and the impact that the program has had on these parents, who must often raise money from friends to pay for costly classes and must devote themselves fully to the program and its founders.
The central narrative follows Elizabeth B., who spends nearly $50,000 to help her son Sam and obtain a mentorship certification and is devastated when the institute exiles her amid a business dispute. The story also explores the deeper question of how we make sense of autism success stories, such as those championed by Son-Rise proponents, and if any intervention can really help people with autism outgrow their diagnosis.
Judges' comments: This investigative piece stands out for its all-around strength and its impact. Brendan Borrell's dogged reporting performed a public service by exposing how the operators of an unproven treatment program harm both the pocketbooks and the emotional well-being of desperate families. It provides readers with strong context about the changing nature of autism diagnoses and deftly integrates public documents and interviews as well as art elements.
Second Place: Charities and the lure of capitalism; Howard Wolinsky, EMBO Reports/Science & Society
This is an in-depth examnation of the strategy some charities are taking to develop new drugs by using approaches developed in venture capital. There are some concerns that the interests of patients take a second place to those of patient associations.
Third Place: To save a life, doctors turn to bacteria-killing viruses; Chris Dall, Jim Wappes, CIDRAP News
The story is about the use of bacteriophage therapy, an experimental therapy using bacteria-killing viruses, to save the life of a patient with a severe and life-threatening bacterial infection.
First Place: The drug industry's triumph over the DEA; Staff, The Washington Post, 60 Minutes
The stories demonstrated the ways that pharmaceutical companies use their clout in Congress, with the DEA and in legal proceedings to evade or reduce their responsibility for the prescription drug abuse epidemic, which has killed about 200,000 people this century. Numerous findings include: Congress, at the behest of drug distributors, passed a law at the height of the epidemic to weaken DEA; an initial version of the law was written by a drug industry lawyer who previously worked for the DEA; drug companies routinely hire the best DEA personnel to weaken regulatory and enforcement efforts; DEA attorneys and US prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges and severe civil penalties against drug distributor McKesson over the objections of investigators; Mallinckrodt, a drug manufacturer, outmaneuvered DEA lawyers and prosecutors in a ground-breaking civil case.
Judges' comments: The reporters documented how a few members who received big contributions from the pharmaceutical industry quietly knee-capped the DEA by changing a few words in the law, while their colleagues were oblivious to the implications. The reporters showed that the bill was written by a drug company lawyer who was a former DEA official, one of many regulators who went over to the private sector.
The 18-month reporting project involved 20 public-record requests, which were delayed so long the journalists filed suit in federal court. The unearthed documents and on-the-record interviews provided fuel for hundreds of lawsuits against the companies by state attorneys general, local jurisdictions, shareholder activists and others.
What made this project so powerful was the way it combined the strengths of print and TV. By joining forces, two influential media outlets were able to tell the stories in complementary ways and amplify the impact.
Second Place: Mexico blackouts; Raquel Rutledge, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
For years, people grappled with shame, guilt and – in many cases – the horror of what happened to them in Mexico. They went on vacations to fancy resorts, excited to spend a week in the warm sun at an all-inclusive. What they got were terrifying experiences. After a few drinks or – in some cases – just one, they became what appeared to be out-of-control intoxicated, sometimes violently vomiting, convulsing and passing out, with no memory of what happened. For several, the outcome was worse.
Mexican authorities dismissed such episodes as the folly of drunk Americans, who went nuts at an all-inclusive. But doubts lingered. How could someone lose consciousness with such a small amount of alcohol? Why were couples, sometimes very differently-sized couples, suffering the same effects at the same time? How was it that the hotel, police and hospital all seemed to be working in cahoots to rip off the tourists? The experience of Abbey Conner proved to be the story that pierced this atmosphere of silence. Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge heard about the tragic story and couldn't shake its haunting nature.
Third Place: Orphan drug machine; Sarah Jane Tribble, Sydney Lupkin, Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News
Reporters Sarah Jane Tribble and data specialist Sydney Lupkin revealed how drugmakers have been manipulating an FDA program designed to help patients with rare diseases get access to new life-saving medicines. Instead, the program has been corrupted by pharmaceutical giants looking to maximize profits on existing drugs and rake in billions of dollars in federal incentives, the investigation revealed. An exclusive data analysis showed that at least a third of the 450 orphan drugs approved by the FDA since 1983 are not "new" products whatsoever.
First Place: Wasted Medicine; Marshall Allen, ProPublica
The National Academy of Medicine estimated in 2012 that the United States wastes about $765 million of the money spent each year on health care. Reducing the waste could make more dollars available for other needs, and could lower the cost of care for all of us. So Marshall Allen set out to identify examples of wasted health care spending, and point to solutions that could save money. The story prompted lawmakers in Florida and New Hampshire to introduce bills to create similar programs, and other states are also having conversations about doing the same.
Judges' comments: We thought this was a truly outstanding reporting and writing effort, which jarred our sensibilities and brought about some real change. We hope it brings about more. ALL entries were great this year.
Second Place: Alive Inside; Mike Hixenbaugh, Houston Chronicle
Among the untold thousands of patients living in U.S. nursing homes and believed to be in a vegetative state following a severe brain injury, more than 40 percent are, in fact, minimally conscious - aware on some basic level but unable to easily show it. The misdiagnosis rate had severe implications. It meant thousands of families each year were making end-of-life decisions based on bad information. And it meant that insurance companies were systematically denying rehab for tens of thousands of patients who had the potential to recover. Plenty has written about end-of-life decisions, especially after the Terri Schiavo controversy a decade ago, but almost nothing has been written about the possibility that some seemingly unconscious patients might be aware, or that they could benefit from physical therapy.
Third Place: Treating cancer: Hope vs. hype; Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News
Cancer patients and their families often must endure endless suffering, broken promises and astronomical bills. But a groundbreaking series by Reporter Liz Szabo of Kaiser Health News shows that's not all that goes horribly wrong. Many cancer drugs, most in fact, are abject failures. They are overhyped, overmarketed, and fraudulently advertised. They cost so much that patients often quit taking their medicines, foregoing treatment until death. And doctors who treat victims are either so poorly skilled, or financially compromised, that patients are left clueless about how long they might survive. Szabo's powerful four-part series, "Treating Cancer: Hope Vs. Hype," was the most sophisticated and penetrating examination of these life-threatening issues ever done.
First Place: Final Wishes: A series on navigating life's last journey; Luanne Rife, The Roanoke Times
The stories were about the choices people with terminal illnesses and their families face at the end of life, about the under use of comfort care and the lack of caregivers and of searching for a place to die.
Judges' comments: This series is a journalistic tour de force. Writer Luanne Rife shines a bright light on a dark subject: end-of-life choices that must be made. She tells the stories of terminally ill patients in vivid and heart-rending detail. The series does a vital community service by highlighting a lack of hospice services in Virginia. Writer Luanne Rife and The Roanoke Times are to be commended for the resulting community reaction aimed at solving that problem.
Second Place: Losing Conner's Mind; Amitha Kalaichandran, Shan Wallace, Seyward Darby, The Atavist
First came seizures. Then Conner Beish started losing words. Before long, the four-year-old was struggling to walk. It was as if he were aging prematurely. His doctors couldn't solve the medical mystery of the toddler who seemed to have dementia. Then a group of enterprising scientists, a few longhaired dachshunds, and a risky surgery gave the Beish family hope. This is a story about Batten disease, a rare, fatal condition, and the challenges it has inflicted upon one American family. In the hands of Amitha Kalaichandran, a resident physician and health journalist, it is a wrenching domestic drama about the power and limitations of love. But Kalaichandran elevates and broadens the narrative such that it also encompasses the obstacles that all families affected by rare diseases face: a lack of investment from Big Pharma in the research required to unravel complex genetic conditions, the glacial pace of government drug approval, and the risk of finding one's sick child at the mercy of an inadequate health-insurance plan.
Third Place: The Fix: Treating New York's Opioid Crisis; Staff, The GroundTruth Project
This series of five audio documentaries called "The Fix" explores the pervasive nature of the opioid epidemic in New York. The reporting, focused in the Bronx, Staten Island and Long Island, investigated what caused the crisis, what's being done about it, and how denial and stigma are fueling a record number of overdose deaths. The audio documentaries comprise a sound-rich and immersive podcast.
The series stands out for its diversity of voices, including sensitive perspectives from patients and providers, and the depth of access to facilities and personal stories. The reporting revealed that the South Bronx is significantly ahead of other places with its treatment programs for opioid addiction. This series provided some of the earliest reporting on how nonprofit workers in the Bronx were illegally using testing strips to find out whether a drug user's heroin contained the far stronger and deadlier opioid, fentanyl.
Health Policy (large)
First Place: The new price of hope; Robert Weisman, Jonathan Saltzman, Scott LaPierre, The Boston Globe
Almost exactly a year after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a revolutionary new genetic treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, most patients with the rare disease are still waiting to get the life-saving medicine. Demand for Spinraza, which is sold by Cambridge-based Biogen Inc., quickly overwhelmed health care providers. Hospitals, many of which had to buy Spinraza up front before seeking reimbursement, weren't sure whether insurers would pay. And their concerns were well-founded. Some insurers have balked at the staggering price tag: $750,000 per patient for the first year and $375,000 annually after that. The Globe looked deeply at one family's quest to get the drug. The paper also examined the impact on the nation's health care system as a wave of six-figure treatments for rare and deadly diseases move toward approval.
Judges comments: The New Price of Hope is a remarkable and touching series about a new drug for spinal muscular atrophy. Wonderful balance of personal stories, science, business and politics. The amount of research and legwork involved was obvious and impressive. The stories also demonstrated well the unusual and often cruel and counterproductive nature of the US healthcare system. Congratulations on inspiring work of journalism!
Second Place: A time to heal; John Schmid, Kevin Crowe, Andrew Mollica, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The primary challenge facing Milwaukee and similar high-poverty cities is not one of the usual suspects - education, crime, even the availability of jobs - although all those play a role. Instead, it is an epidemic of trauma passed from one generation to another, one neighborhood to the next. The perpetuation of trauma has been documented in the families of those who survived the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide. That data has now turned up the same phenomena in families entrenched in poverty, violence and neglect.
Third Place: About a boy; Casey Parks, The Oregonian/OregonLive
In August 2014, Oregon health officials passed one of the nation's most progressive transgender health care policies. Under the new rules, Medicaid would pay for puberty blockers, hormones and gender reassignment surgeries. Reporter Casey Parks contacted local hospitals to find patients who might be willing to share their stories. Later that year, Legacy Medical Group officials agreed to help. Dr. Karin Selva at the health system's Randall Children's Hospital told Parks she had treated nearly 50 young transgender patients. One - Jay - agreed to be interviewed. He had just turned 15. Parks followed him over many months as he encountered medical, psychological, social and bureaucratic hurdles for gender reassignment surgery.
Health Policy (small)
First Place: Struggling for care; Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio
The San Joaquin Valley lacks doctors. For every 100,000 residents, the Valley has 39 primary care physicians-22 percent less than the state average of 64-and an even lower share of specialists. The supply is also short for health professionals who accept Medi-Cal and plans through the Affordable Care Act. Simultaneously, the Valley has an outsized need for doctors. Home to concentrated poverty and some of the most polluted air in the country, the Valley's four million residents suffer from elevated rates of asthma and obesity compared to the rest of the state. Life expectancies for poor and affluent residents can vary by as much as 20 years. "Struggling For Care" is a collection of in-depth reports, testimonials and panel discussions examining what this shortage means to residents, what some health professionals are doing about it, and why the Valley has such a tough time holding on to doctors in the first place.
Judges' comments: Much has been published about the doctor shortage in rural areas, but “Struggling for Care,” a four-part series produced by Valley Public Radio, truly elevates our understanding of the problem. Focusing on California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, the series takes a deep dive into history, new data, and resident’s stories, delivering a provocative analysis of causes and potential solutions. The package, which includes online discussions and postings, is smart, fresh, and moving.
Second Place: Urgent for care: Can Missouri's poorest county keep its hospital alive?; Bram Sable-Smith, KBIA/Side Effects Public Media
This was a series of stories unpacking the challenges that have caused 80 rural hospital to close since 2010 and 40 percent of the nation's rural hospitals to operate at a loss each year. The focus was the lone public hospital in Missouri's poorest county that narrowly escaped closing in 2013 and has been struggling to stay open ever since.
Third Place: Voice of the People; Timothy Gower, Proto Magazine
The FDA considers input from the public when they approve new drugs. The legacy of the AIDS epidemic has helped to speed along the process for necessary medications. But is there a cost? The feature explores the costs and benefits of public pressure in drug policy.
Public Health (large)
First Place: Planet Fat; Staff, The New York Times
One of the West's leading exports to the developing world is obesity, fueled by a deluge of Doritos and Kit-Kats, Cookie Crisp and Koko Krunch, KFC and Coca-Cola. A team of New York Times journalists led by Matt Richtel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and technology reporter, and Andrew Jacobs, a veteran foreign correspondent, set out to explain the epidemic of fatness that has crept across the globe, contributing to four million premature deaths a year from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. This crew of foreign correspondents, business reporters and health specialists, videographers, photographers and graphics journalists told deeply reported stories from seven countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Judges' comments: This series, reported from seven countries, alerted readers to the rising problem of obesity in less-wealthy countries and shined a light on the food industry's aggressive efforts to continue growing market share, regardless of the health consequences. More than a result of resources, the series shows that smart and alert reporters can recognize a serious and growing problem, study it from all angles, and turn it into riveting journalism. Many of the other entries had that “I didn’t know that” effect. But this one went beyond with its stellar design, packaging and writing.
Second Place: In harm’s way; Kathleen McGrory, Connie Humburg, John Pendygraft, Tampa Bay Times
Reporters for the Tampa Bay Times had a hunch that pediatric gun injuries were on the rise. But the Florida Department of Health didn't have an official count. Neither did the state Department of Law Enforcement. They set out to check the theory on our own. To do so, they requested more than 60 million hospital discharge records from the state Agency for Health Care Administration, as well as data from each of Florida's regional medical examiner's offices. After crunching the numbers, they discovered that a kid is shot in Florida every 17 hours. Child gun deaths had increased nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Child gun injuries, meanwhile, had increased about 36 percent.
Third Place: Lost Mothers; Nina Martin, Adriana Gallardo, Renee Montagne, ProPublica and National Public Radio
The "Lost Mothers" project by ProPublica and NPR is a sweeping examination of why the U.S. is perhaps the most dangerous place in the industrialized world in which to give birth. The pieces at the center of the project focused on maternal deaths and near-deaths, looking at why life-threatening complications occur, why black women are much more likely to die and nearly die than white women, and why providers often fail to implement safety protocols that could prevent needless harm. Other major pieces examined why state and federal governments do such a poor job counting maternal deaths, why giving birth in Great Britain is so much safer than in the U.S., and how women and families can advocate to improve care for themselves and others.
Public Health (small)
First Place: To Reduce Neonatal Mortality, Nigeria is Taking a Simple Treatment Nationwide; T.R. Goldman, Health Affairs
The point of my piece was to take a detailed look from the ground up at the introduction of a theoretically straightforward health protocol - a national program to apply chlorhexidine gel to the umbilical cord stumps of every baby born in Nigeria - and look at exactly why such a strategy is in fact so difficult to achieve. What I discovered was that a myriad of factors were implicated, many of which appeared at first to have little to do with public health - from cultural issues to road transportation; local political structures to a chronic lack of money. The strategy is crucial from a public health perspective because bacteria entering newly-cut umbilical cords kills tens of thousands of infants every year, and is a significant contributor to Nigeria's high neonatal mortality rate. Applying chlorhexidine gel to the umbilical cord stumps of newborns has been proven to cut mortality rates by as much as one-third.
Judges comments: The article captures the reader from the first sentence and holds the reader until the last word – it is seamless, well-constructed story-telling. The way it was written conveyed a sense of urgency, yet weaved clinical, economic, and political concerns into a single narrative. The story of neonatal treatment of the umbilical cord becomes a metaphor for the larger issues that plague Nigeria and the world.
Second Place: The opioid crisis; Markian Hawryluk, Bend (Ore.) Bulletin
The Opioid Crisis is a series of stories examining how the health system is responding to the opioid overdose epidemic. The initial article in the series showed how public health efforts to rein in overprescribing of opioid pain medications has left chronic pain patients feeling desperate often with tragic circumstances. The second and third pieces explored how the expansion of the demographic groups involved in the current drug crisis has opened the door for new strategies to prevent overdoses. The fourth piece highlighted how stigma around addiction prevents access to proven treatments for addiction. The final piece in the series described how pregnancy represents a window of opportunity for women with addictions despite the significant risks that pregnant women face in coming forward.
Third Place: What's killing Indiana's infants; Giles Bruce, The Times of Northwest Indiana
Your ZIP code matters more than your genetic code. Where you live predicts how long you will live. That's what Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of the California Endowment, told me. I had decided to examine Indiana's high incidence of infant mortality, the death of a child before the age of 1, by looking at five ZIP codes with the highest rates of babies dying. The results were startling. For instance, the black infant mortality rate in East Chicago, Indiana, (27.3 deaths per 1,000 live births) is on par with such developing nations as Zimbabwe or Guatemala. The risk factors often differed by location and demographics. There were some common themes: poverty, stress, pollution. But the more urban areas had more access to health care and services, while the more rural areas had more drug use and smoking.
First Place: Liquid Gold; Fred Schulte, Liz Lucas, Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News
Doctors across the U.S. are becoming millionaires by setting up private, on-site labs and testing urine samples for legal and illegal drugs. The simple tests are costing the U.S. government and American insurers $8.5 billion a year -- more than the entire budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, this investigation by Kaiser Health News showed.
Doctors are testing patients - even the elderly - for opioids as well as street drugs like PCP or cocaine that almost never turn up positive. And the payoff is stunning: Testing a tiny cup of urine can bring in as much as $1,845. Yet there are no national standards for who gets tested, for what, or how often. Urine testing has been particularly lucrative for doctors who operate their own labs.
Judges' comments: This was reporting of exceptional depth and breadth that required locating and retrieving vast amounts of urine testing data. The meticulous analysis provides disturbing new insights about how dozens of physician-owned urine testing labs have skirted the law to turn urine into Medicare-funded "liquid gold." The investigation by Fred Schulte and Liz Lucas was the most extensive to quantify how much is spent on urine testing or how those federal transactions are supposed to be regulated or policed.
Second Place: Live forever: How the drug industry holds onto patients, patents and profits; Cynthia Koons, Benjamin Elgin, Robert Langreth, Bloomberg
This year, Bloomberg launched a deep examination of how the drug industry uses patent laws, secret labs, obscure regulations, and aggressive sales practices to hold onto the revenue from its most profitable products for years. The reporting uncovered the business practices that were behind the resignations of the CEO and CFO of one of the world's (at the time) most highly valued biotechnology companies, showed how the cosmetic drug Botox became a blockbuster locked in an impenetrable fortress, and how the industry has taken advantage of the nation's laws and regulations to block competition. As the story neared publication, Alexion announced an overhaul of some of the tactics, and Bloomberg also broke news about investigations into the company by law enforcement and regulators, as well as operational and management changes.
Third Place: Healthy hospitals, sick neighborhoods; Dan Diamond, Politico
The gleaming towers of Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are a source of pride for the U.S. health care system, drawing international patients and world-class acclaim. But to many neighbors just next door, these tax-exempt hospitals and their peers are often the enemy, failing to reinvest in the community and putting hospital margins well ahead of their mission. That tension drove a year-long probe by Politico's Dan Diamond on how hospitals win tax-exempt status, how the industry has worked to protect it and how the loose regulations have skewed hospitals' priorities. As Diamond's reporting showed, the nation's most prominent tax-exempt hospitals have seen their profits rise sharply since the Affordable Care Act took effect. Meanwhile, they've quietly cut back on free care and held other community investments flat, despite the explicit requirement to serve these communities.