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: 2020 winners
- Beat Reporting
- Trade Publications/Newsletters
- Investigative (large)
- Investigative (small)
- Consumer/Feature (large)
- Consumer/Feature (small)
- Health Policy (large)
- Health Policy (small)
- Public Health (large)
- Public Health (small)
First Place: COVID-19 Pandemic Reporting; Lisa M. Krieger, The (San Jose) Mercury News
Krieger's first story on the pandemic, "What you need to know about the mysterious coronavirus," came Jan. 24, 2020, with a lead that read then almost as science fiction but today seems startlingly prescient: "Imagine fencing in every Californian." Nearly 200 articles later, she has continued to stay ahead of the curve, through an approach eschewing the longer, more time-consuming stories that have characterized her career in favor of the breaking insights she believes readers need now. And what insights. Krieger understood early that one of the biggest challenges of COVID-19 was the large number of people who got it but never suffered or even showed symptoms; a memorable early April headline was "How sick will you get?"
Judges' comments: Lisa Krieger recognized this story earlier than most and explained it clearly, drawing real patients into almost every piece. Her work was targeted, informative, useful to her readers, and easy to understand. Her writing was excellent.
Second Place: Health care reporting 2020; Alex Smith, KCUR
1) Kansas Health Department's Hopeful-Looking COVID-19 Assessments Are Drastically Undercounting Cases - Smith found that Kansas's health department was not including asymptomatic cases in its counts of COVID-19 cases. This made the state's data appear that cases were declining when they were actually increasing.
2) Why Outbreaks At A Well Known Westport Bar And Other Spots Have Gone Unreported By Health Officials - Kansas City, Missouri's health department claimed to be tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 in business, but through the exploring an outbreak that occurred a one local bar, Smith found that few smaller outbreaks were actually been tracked and reported by the city, a problem that health department officials then acknowledged.
Third Place: Tracking the Coronavirus and Beyond; Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times
Apoorva Mandavilli took on a daunting task in 2020: explaining to readers, in real time, the nature of a virus that, so far, has killed 2 million people and infected 100 million around the globe. How did it spread? Who was vulnerable? Exactly how contagious was the pathogen? How did it attack the body, and how did the immune system respond?
In scores of articles over the year, Mandavilli tracked the evolving science, translating difficult and uncertain research into actionable journalism that changed daily life for readers and often had an impact on public policy. Her reporting on infection and immunity in children prompted a national discussion, still continuing, about when schools should be open and under what circumstances.
First Place: Covid 'Long-Haulers' and Their Lingering Medical Bills; Lydia Wheeler, Paige Smith, Andrew Satter, Bloomberg Law
For many survivors of COVID-19, the suffering really hasn't ended. Many struggle with long-term heart, kidney and lung damage; severe fatigue; and an inability to focus that they vaguely refer to as brain fog. For these so-called "long haulers," COVID is the new pre-existing condition, without the guarantees of protection. They face the prospects of fights with their insurance companies to cover tens of thousands of dollars in bills not tied to the immediate illness.
Judges comments: Some survivors of COVID-19 face a protracted struggle with heart, kidney or lung damage, severe fatigue or "brain fog" that impair their ability to work or make them the target of huge medical bills. Laws governing workplace rights and health insurance don't always make clear who pays. Bloomberg Law reporters Lydia Wheeler and Paige Smith and video journalist Andrew Satter explain the issues and introduce some of those who must deal with the question: Who pays when sickness just won't end?
Second Place: Making change: Covering the effort to transform local health; Rob Waters, Health Affairs
The stories submitted here were published as part of a regular, monthly series in Health Affairs called Leading to Health, focused on efforts to transform local health systems. In these stories, I looked at four local efforts to provide health care and health-supporting services in new ways that improve the wellbeing and health of people whose needs are often ignored or poorly served.
Third Place: Cracking the meat-allergy mystery with the tick-bite link; Bianca Nogrady, Nature
When my friend Peter first told me he was allergic to mammalian meat in 2008, I thought he was joking. I remember saying, "but we're made of meat!" His unusual story piqued my scientific curiosity, and set me on a journalistic path of enquiry that would span 13 years, several continents, multiple scientific disciplines, and four national and international publications.
My first piece on mammalian meat allergy and its unexpected link to tick bites was published in The Australian newspaper in 2008, and to my knowledge was the first story written about this allergy anywhere in the world.
First Place: Inside the Fall of the CDC; Staff, ProPublica
"Inside the Fall of the CDC" was based on hundreds of leaked emails, internal CDC documents and interviews with more than 30 current CDC employees and administration officials who witnessed the transformation of the world's premier public health organization into an agent of propaganda to the shame of its staff: "The cowardice and the caving are disgusting to me," one CDC veteran told us.
Judges' comments: The “Fall of CDC” was an exercise in extensive and detailed reporting on the biggest public policy issue of the year. ProPublica documented with emails, public records, and dogged interviewing a story that many thought they knew but couldn’t nail down.
Second Place: Nursing Homes' Fatal Failures; Staff, The Wall Street Journal and WSJ.com
Defenseless and vulnerable, America's seniors faced the brunt of the pandemic when COVID-19 swept through nursing homes. The Wall Street Journal exposed catastrophic mismanagement and cover-ups by public officials. And it forced policy changes that saved the lives of some of America's most fragile patients. In numerous exclusive stories, the Journal revealed information that officials tried to downplay or hide. Some family members learned for the first time through Journal reporting how their parents died.
Third Place: Dying On The Sheriff's Watch; Christine Willmsen, Beth Healy, WBUR
WBUR believes it is one of the first to air an in-depth series revealing the hidden causes of death in these county jails. Using a database built from thousands of jail, legal and state documents as well as dozens of interviews and months of reporting, WBUR's investigative unit paints a vivid picture of inadequate medical care, negligence and secrecy that led to the deaths of dozens of inmates and left their families in the dark.
First Place: Careless; Tony Cook, Emily Hopkins, Tim Evans, Indianapolis Star
An 18-month Indianapolis Star investigation uncovered how government officials in Indiana took millions of dollars in federal nursing home funds and used it instead to pad the bottom lines of hospitals, leaving Hoosiers with some of the worst nursing homes in America as the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The series, "Careless," found that county hospitals across the state had bought up nearly all of Indiana's 534 nursing homes, at least on paper, to access enhanced Medicaid funds available to government-owned homes. But much of the money - more than $1 billion - never reached the vulnerable nursing home residents for whom it was intended.
Judges' comments: This entry goes beyond excellence -- it sets a bar that journalism and newspapers should aspire to reach. Like most solid investigative projects, it follows the money and finds out what's really going on. But what sets this series apart is in the authority it brings to the table. Because so much legwork and research was done here and the depth of knowledge is so deep, the paper can be bold in its presentation -- it draws conclusions and states them out loud. Not maybe-this and maybe-that, not hey-this-might-be-a-problem, but really saying what the reality is. Wonderful work. It's a complex, multi-tentacled story, but it comes across clearly and directly. The writing is bright, the presentation strong. It's a story with clear impact on its community and beyond. What an impressive accomplishment.
Second Place: What Happened in Room 10?; Katie Engelhart, Kit Rachlis, Tom Colligan, The California Sunday Magazine
"What Happened in Room 10?" was, and remains, the definitive narrative account of the first COVD-19 hotspot in the United States. A remarkable work of investigative reporting and storytelling by journalist Katie Engelhart, it reconstructs the confusion, chaos, and fear as a mysterious new disease spreads through the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington. Forty-six people associated with the nursing home died, exposing how ill-prepared we were for the pandemic - and how we take care of our elderly.
Third Place: Crime Scene: Ebola; Melanie Gouby, Les Jours (www.lesjours.fr)
With a vaccine of demonstrated efficacy and four experimental treatments available to healthcare practitioners, the conditions should have made the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo one of the shortest and least deadly in the history of the disease. And yet, against all expectations the end of the epidemic was not announced until June 26, 2020, almost two years after the launch of a humanitarian operation that cost the staggering sum of one billion dollars, more than three times the country's annual health budget. Of the 3,470 cases, 2,287 died, a case fatality rate of 66% making this Ebola epidemic the second deadliest after the West African outbreak of 2014-2016, when no treatment was available. A bitter medical and human defeat.
First Place: Shadow Pandemic; William Wan, The Washington Post
Diseases don't just attack the body. Outbreaks often create a shadow pandemic of psychological and societal injuries, which also maim, kill and devastate families. And the underlying tragedy of this carnage is that we could stop it - if only we cared.
America has always treated mental illness in dramatically different and discriminatory ways compared to physical illnesses. But amidst a pandemic, that inequality has caused unprecedented, widespread suffering.
Judges' comments: In this series of vivid and deeply moving portraits, William Wan examines the mental and physical health costs of the COVID-19 pandemic that could have easily been overlooked by coverage of the disease itself. Blending personal narratives with accountability journalism and novel methods of data collection and analysis, these stories shine a spotlight on other crises brought on by the pandemic: resurging addiction, isolation of society's most vulnerable people, suicide, mental illness. The reporting is resourceful, the writing lucid and affecting, and the data analysis compelling. Amid a host of first-rate contest entries, this package stood out for its originality and for its scope.
Second Place: My Blood; Samantha Stark, Gina Kolata, The New York Times
A 16-year-old girl was about to undergo an experimental treatment that could be the first genetic cure for a common disease. Long before the national news media seized on this breakthrough in medicine that could affect millions of people around the world, The New York Times produced "My Blood," an arresting documentary that chronicles the girl's experience and wrestles with the racially fraught nature of this particular disease.
Third Place: Cutting-edge coverage of artificial intelligence in medicine; Staff, STAT
As medical AI tools have proliferated, STAT's health tech reporters have been at the forefront of reporting on bias, ethical issues, and evidence surrounding the systems, including with this series of stories from 2020.
The growth of AI in medicine has largely happened out of the public eye - and often, without the knowledge of the health workers tasked with using the tools or the patients whose care they affect. The data used to train the tools is often hidden, and the regulation of them remains scattershot.
First Place: Learning from the Dead: The enduring gift of donating a body to science; Kate Silver, Chicago Health Magazine
"Learning from the Dead" follows the process of whole body donation from the start to the finish. It begins with the story of man who searched for a meaningful way to contribute after he dies, and he decided to donate his body to science. It then traces the physical process of body donation, with interviews along the way with people at the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois (a non-profit that oversees the process), along with professors at various anatomy labs at universities and with students who study the bodies, which are truly their first patients. It ends by returning to the story of the donor, as his wife reflects on the meaning of her husband's gift.
Judges' comments: In "Learning from the Dead: The enduring gift of donating a body to science," Kate Silver opened the door to whole-body donation. Through her multiple in-depth interviews as well as hard work and determination, Kate introduced her readers to an alternative to traditional post-death options that they may not have understood previously. Her research allowed her to present the concept in a very respectful manner, highlighting this practice's meaning for the deceased, his family, and the health care providers and first responders who benefitted from the donation. Her thorough reportage is an excellent example of how boots-on-the-ground effort helps build an award-winning story.
Second Place: 34 Years With A New Heart - And Counting; Katja Ridderbusch, Georgia Health News and WABE
Heart transplantation is a surgery that carries significant medical gravity and cultural mystique - even 53 years after Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant in South Africa.
My story revolves around Atlanta-area resident Harry Wuest and Dr. Douglas "Doug" Murphy. Wuest was the third heart transplant patient at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, 35 years ago. His doctor was Murphy, Emory's first transplant surgeon, who became the world's leading expert in robotically-assisted heart surgery.
Third Place: New moms in Alabama face suspicion over error-prone drug screens; Anna Claire Vollers, AL.com
Alabama considers drug use during pregnancy a felony. The state's chemical endangerment law has been used to prosecute women who expose their unborn babies to drugs in utero. This makes false-positive drug screens at hospitals particularly fraught for people who give birth. A positive screen can mean loss of custody of the baby and other children, involvement with social services, and even incarceration.
Alabama leads the nation in charging women with felonies for drug use in pregnancy. In this story, Alabama women share their experiences of false-positive screens, and experts talk about how the situation could or should be fixed.
Health Policy (large)
First Place: The Black American Amputation Epidemic; Lizzie Presser, ProPublica
At the start of a critical election year, in which health care was expected to be hotly debated, Lizzie Presser decided to try to understand what was wrong with the system through the prism of one disease; diabetes was preventable, yet ubiquitous and deadly. Though researchers had made great strides in diabetes care, innovations weren't reaching those who needed them most; it was disabling and killing poor Americans at startling rates, and in particular, Black Americans. She took a statistic known in the medical community - Black Americans are three times more likely than others to suffer diabetic amputations - and sought to understand how and why this came to be.
Judges' comments: This is a highly original example of one reporter's dogged determination, journalistic skills, and poignant story telling that revealed a deeply embedded pattern of structural racism, inept regulatory policies, and medical mistreatment that subjected countless African-Americans to unnecessary diabetes-related amputations.
Second Place: Systems Failure: Hospitals in Crisis; Staff, The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal revealed a deadly lapse in the nation's COVID-19 response: The U.S. hospital industry--warned for years about the need to prepare for a pandemic--chose to instead to cut costs and boost profits by slashing inventory of all key medical supplies, using software to winnow stocks of protective gear hoping to replenish it as needed. The industry also bungled a chance to create technology to streamline emergency patient transfers. The WSJ showed how this key element of the medical-industrial complex acted in its own interest, and didn't set aside resources that would have better prepared America for the pandemic. Hospitals, as much as the government, ignored warnings of shortages of protective gear that handicapped the struggle against the virus and continue today.
Third Place: Hard Lives Made Harder by COVID: Homeless Endure a 'Slow-Moving Train Wreck'; Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Angela Hart, Kaiser Health News, Los Angeles Times
This was supposed to be the year that California finally did something about its epidemic of homelessness. Then the pandemic hit, shuttering services and thrusting millions of Californians, many already precariously housed, into financial uncertainty.
The state's crowded shelters, in short supply and usually considered safe ground for homeless people, suddenly posed a risk of transmission and had to be thinned out. The very conditions lambasted as California's shameful legacy of neglect - people subsisting in makeshift shanties and battered tents in parks and alleys and freeway underpasses - emerged as a safer alternative.
Health Policy (small)
First Place: Lives on Hold; Bram Sable-Smith, Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio
A 2013 Wisconsin law prevents laid-off workers on federal disability from getting state unemployment. When the pandemic came, Wisconsin denied these workers federal pandemic aid, too, leaving 150,000 Wisconsin workers with disabilities without a safety net. In response to this reporting, Wisconsin reversed course and began offering Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to unemployed workers on disability. Lawmakers also proposed, unsuccessfully so far, to change the rules for regular unemployment help.
Judges comments: These stories were vivid and well told, with their focus on real people who were affected by government policy. Most impressively, they achieved meaningful results.
Second Place: Michigan COVID nursing home policies; Robin Erb, Jonathan Oosting, Bridge Michigan
From the first frantic weeks of the pandemic, Bridge Michigan reporters held state officials accountable for policies affecting the state's most vulnerable citizens, the thousands of residents living in nursing homes. It started with frantic calls from families hearing rumors that COVID-19 spreading through centers.
Bridge was first to report the state had no data on nursing home cases and deaths. Its reporting led the state health department to collect and then release weekly updates. Bridge didn't stop there. Our reporters revealed how Michigan continued to lag other states in reporting, and wrote numerous stories about families not able to extract their parents from COVID-stricken centers or even visit them. Bridge chronicled the disturbing health reports emerging from some of those nursing homes, and later reporting pushed the state to release more detailed information on nursing home cases.
Third Place: Committed; Luanne Rife, The Roanoke Times
Virginia's psychiatric hospitals are overcrowded with older people with aggressive forms of dementia. Virginia commits elderly people to psych hospitals when their behavior becomes too difficult for their families or long-term care providers to manage.
They are locked up with no possessions or visitors, and stripped of their rights. And they often become stuck because Virginia's long-term care providers are ill-equipped to manage behavioral issues, and they refuse to take them into their homes.
Public Health (large)
First Place: Hidden Epidemics; Staff, Columbia Journalism Investigations, Center for Public Integrity and The State
For decades, scientists have warned that climate change would harm our health, spurring an unprecedented rise in deadly heat, infectious disease and disaster-related trauma. But the U.S. public health system, hampered by underfunding and political resistance at every level of government, is ill-prepared for the climate crisis, as documented in a 16-month investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity called "Hidden Epidemics."
Americans are suffering the consequences.
Judges' comments: Hidden Epidemics is a collection of articles focusing on the intersection of health and climate change, based on impressive reporting. The vibrio story, for instance, seemed like the perfect example of a hidden epidemic, perhaps one that's about to take off. The piece about heat casualties required unique data modeling and was able to demonstrate that heat is linked to deaths that might not otherwise be deemed heat-related. The stories also emphasize the dangers that occur when scientific facts are treated like political differences of opinion.
Second Place: Petrie Dish: Tragedy In The Rio Grande Valley, A 'Perfect Storm' For A COVID-19 Outbreak; Bonnie Petrie, Fernanda Camarena, Dominic Anthony Walsh, Texas Public Radio
Texas was in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, but one area, in particular, was in crisis. Hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley were near or at capacity for long, sweltering weeks in the summer of 2020, and EMS crews were stretched thin. Hidalgo County has been designated as a medically underserved area. We dive deep into why that is and what it means for the people who live there during a pandemic where there aren't enough resources for anyone...and if you never had enough resources, the results are a crush of COVID cases and deaths.
Third Place: Last Words; The Spotlight Team, The Boston Globe
The Globe Spotlight team's exploration of the end of life laid bare, through data and narrative, how our society's inequities extend even to the grave and how few of us control our final days. It covered, but was not limited to, the COVID-19 pandemic period.
They found that in Massachusetts, a state that boasts some of the world's greatest hospitals, income and race are factors in not only where and how people die, but in how long they live. The difference between living in a wealthy neighborhood or a poor one can mean as much as 15 years of life.
Public Health (small)
First Place: Radon: The radioactive killer; Sara Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News
Utah has the nation's lowest smoking rate, yet lung cancer remains the state's deadliest cancer. Radon - an invisible, odorless carcinogen - may play a role. However, despite its known harms and reachable solutions, almost nothing is being done to protect Utahns.
In reporting on radon, I knew I had to do more than just tell a good story. People needed to feel invested in both the problem and the search for solutions.
Judges' comments: In what we felt was a very strong category, this story stood out to us as the strongest — enterprising, well-told, excellent presentation – on an important public health topic. We appreciated the depth of reporting and research, the bridges built with policy makers and public, the flow and clarity of stories. There were tangible steps the state could take if it wants to address the problems raised.
Second Place: Help, Not Handcuffs: A New Way to Respond to the Opioid Crisis; Karen Brown, New England Public Radio
As opioid abuse continues unabated, drug users often stay under the radar until it's too late.
Health leaders are developing ways not just to get them help, but to keep them alive until they're ready to get sober.
In one approach gaining traction around Massachusetts, police officers are trained to reach out to drug users after a crisis - from an overdose to a drug-related crime - and offer them help. That could mean a warm bed for the night or a ride to detox.
Third Place: COVID-19 crept from cluster to cluster, weaving a web over Nashville; Brett Kelman, The Tennessean
This story used contact tracing data to identify 50 previously unreported links between COVID-19 cluster sites in an around Nashville. These links unearth a new level of detail about how the virus spread through the city and illustrate better than ever the importance of social distancing and virus precaution.
The story also reveals that Nashville bars clusters, a contentious topic amid the pandemic, were linked to three times as many infections as what was publicly known at the time.
First Place: On the Line, How the Meatpacking Industry Became a Hotbed of COVID-19; Michael Grabell, Bernice Yeung, ProPublica
As COVID-19 began its march across the United States, reporter Michael Grabell knew in his gut where the virus would find some of its easiest victims: the nation's meatpacking plants. Grabell had written extensively about the industry, touring slaughterhouses where hundreds of refugee and immigrant workers toiled in dangerously close quarters slicing up beef, pork and chicken for restaurants and supermarkets. In March, he wrote a story warning that the nation's meatpacking plants were poised to explode with COVID-19.
Judges' comments: Based on an exhaustive analysis of thousands of emails, texts and other public records, the ProPublica team exposed the ways in which American meatpacking companies — sometimes with the help of state and local politicians — put the lives of vulnerable immigrant and refugee workers at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 rolled across America, meatpacking plants in places like Grand Island, Nebraska, and Waterloo, Iowa, became epicenters of local outbreaks. As local officials pleaded with companies to help stop the spread, ProPublica's reporting found, companies refused to shut down, dragged their feet on safety measures and used their political connections — all the way to the White House — to protect their interests. ProPublica overcame resistance of state and local officials to release public records to compile a database that shows 50,000 cases of COVID-19 among meatpacking workers.
Second Place: The Race for a Vaccine; Staff, The Wall Street Journal
No news organization penetrated the chase for a COVID-19 vaccine and captured the triumphs, challenges, conflicts and opportunism like The Wall Street Journal. Its coverage fully revealed the complex interplay of business realities, public-health demands, scientific realities, market forces and personal ego.
The result: gripping coverage that repeatedly shed new light on the real story behind one of the most extraordinary feats in the history of modern medicine or corporate America.
Third Place: Meatpacking Workers in Crisis; Maria Perez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The stories exposed the failures of companies and regulators to protect food processing workers from COVID-19 in one of the most comprehensive examinations of work conditions at these plants. They also revealed the scope of the outbreaks at food processing companies despite industry and government efforts to keep it secret.
First Place: Two-part series: Part 1- COVID's Invisible Victims and Part 2 - Caring for COVID's Invisible Victims; Student News Staff of Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University, Cronkite News at ASU
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU committed to examining the public policy and public health impact of COVID-19 on the nation's estimated 600,000 homeless people - an extremely vulnerable group whose threatened well-being had significant and previously unreported implications for general public health. Reporters filed 140 public records requests to more than 40 counties identified in a Howard Center analysis as having homeless populations most vulnerable to a COVID outbreak. The responses provided an inside look at how local governments were trying (or not) to meet the needs of their homeless populations amid the pandemic.
Judges' comments: A truly impressive package of investigative digging, human stories, compelling photos and data visualization, all beautifully presented.
Second Place: COVID in Indian Country, a series; Staff of Cronkite News, Cronkite News
Tribal communities like the Navajo Nation have long lived in the shadows, struggling to overcome the many social inequities that lead to the very kind of health disparities that make COVID-19 more lethal.
And so it was hardly a surprise that the virus struck this community so hard. By summer, the reservation of 174,000 people had a higher rate of COVID-related deaths than any U.S. state.
Third Place: Life Is ... Confronting Youth Suicide in Arizona; Cronkite News special project team, Cronkite News at Arizona State University
What can be done about youth suicide? Starting in 2019 and culminating Jan. 12, 2021, with a documentary, 20 student journalists at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication set about answering that question, seeking to uncover workable solutions to what's become an alarming public health crisis.
Students identified multiple factors linked to youth suicide, rooting out insights into prevention efforts that have worked.
The culmination of the project was a documentary that aired Jan. 12, 2021. That documentary is not included in this entry.