Sex differences and COVID-19: How journalists can raise awareness

About Erica Tricarico

Managing Editor Erica Tricarico is a graduate of Howard University and the master’s program in journalism at CUNY. Tricarico comes to AHCJ from MJH Life Sciences in Cranbury, N.J., where she managed an editorial team producing content on animal care. Before that, she was a freelance health care reporter for Everyday Health.

AHCJ webcast, 12/1/21.

As widespread as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been, there are differences reporters need to understand — and those sex- and gender-based differences aren’t unique to the way this pandemic has played out. They’re apparent in many other aspects of health.

That was the big takeaway from Wednesday’s AHCJ webcast, hosted by independent journalist Michele Cohen Marill. Panelists were:

  • Louise McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington distinguished chair of neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and chief of neurology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center;
  • Sara Ghandehari, M.D., a pulmonologist and director of pulmonary rehabilitation in the Women’s Guild Lung Institute at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles;
  • Psychologist Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., the Norma Weinberg Spungen and Joan Lebson Bildner Professor in Women’s Health Research and director of Women’s Health Research at Yale.

McCullough laid the foundation for the conversation by explaining the difference between sex and gender this way: Sex is biological, while gender is about your perception or society’s perception of your sex.

In terms of the physical impact of COVID-19, men tend to experience more devastating disease and have a higher risk of mortality, while women are more likely to have long-haul symptoms. But there are gender differences when it comes to the impact of the pandemic on mental health, Mazure pointed out, which are related to the kind of work women do within and outside the household.

“If you don’t look for sex differences you won’t find them, but they’re there,” McCullough said.

Panelists agreed that highlighting sex differences in health reporting is crucial. “We cannot allow this to be dropped. We have to raise awareness,” Mazure said.

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AHCJ announces 2022 Health Performance Reporting Fellows

COLUMBIA, Mo. —The Association of Health Care Journalists has awarded AHCJ Reporting Fellowships on Health Care Performance to five journalists, whose proposals stood out among the pool of other talented applicants. The program, supported by The Commonwealth Fund for the 12th year in a row, is designed to help journalists understand and report on the performance of local health care markets and the U.S. health system in its entirety.

The fellowship covers the cost of attending seminars and AHCJ conferences, and a $4,000 project allowance is available to defray the cost of field reporting, health data analysis and other project-related research. Each fellow will receive a $2,500 fellowship award upon the successful completion of projects. Recipients will continue their jobs during the coming year while also receiving customized training, mentoring and financial support for field reporting and conference and workshop attendance. Continue reading

Companies and health care institutions nationwide are prioritizing digital health equity efforts 

About Karen Blum

Karen Blum is AHCJ’s core topic leader on health IT. An independent journalist in the Baltimore area, she has written health IT stories for publications such as Pharmacy Practice News, Clinical Oncology News, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, General Surgery News and Infectious Disease Special Edition.

A screengrab from  Executives for Health Innovation’s “The White Male Doctor Will See You Now: Utilizing Digital Health to Increase Access to Diverse Providers” panel discussion.

Can digital tools help make health care more accessible and affordable for everyone? This concept, known as digital health equity, was the subject of a two-day virtual summit hosted earlier last month by nonprofit organization Executives for Health Innovation (EHI), formerly called the eHealth Initiative. 

Panel discussions covered topics such as advancing digital health equity for rural and underserved populations, delivering maternal health equity, and how virtual care is expanding access for vulnerable communities. Recordings now available for viewing on YouTube can provide a rich foundation of story angles and knowledgeable sources for journalists. 

 Not everyone has access to cultural or linguistic-appropriate providers in their communities, said Catherine Pugh, assistant vice president of policy at EHI. But digital health could be used to ensure everyone nationwide can access a relatable physician who can provide the best possible care. 

In a panel, Pugh chaired at the summit, “The White Male Doctor Will See You Now: Utilizing Digital Health to Increase Access to Diverse Providers,” panelists from several organizations highlighted their efforts to use digital health options to treat and meet the needs of diverse communities. 

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Hospital ratings: How journalists can help consumers have important conversations

About Kerry Dooley Young

Kerry Dooley Young (@kdooleyyoung) is AHCJ's core topic leader on patient safety. She has written extensively about the Food and Drug Administration, medical research, health policy and quality measurements. Her work has appeared in Medscape Medical News, Congressional Quarterly/CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg News.

Photo by Alex Proimos via Flickr.

Many of our readers, listeners and viewers are not aware of the different ratings available to help consumers evaluate hospitals. While there are challenges with using these ratings, they may be helpful for patients, especially those preparing for an elective procedure.

Experienced journalists have seen numerous stories examining the differing methodologies and motives of the groups that produce hospital ratings. Many journalists have written on this topic already. It’s important to make sure your readers understand how much marketing may be involved with reports they see about hospitals getting top marks.

The existence of hospital ratings is likely old news for many of us. But many of the people we serve may not know about them or not know what to do with the data they provide.

“Stories that are written about websites like Leapfrog Group can be a beneficial source of information,” Christine Smith of Rockville, Maryland said in an email to AHCJ.

Smith told me she thought Medstar Georgetown University Hospital was a top-rated center due in part to the statements on its website and its affiliation with a prestigious academic institution. During our conversation, I told her I would look at the ratings CMS had posted for Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. On Medicare.gov’s comparison page, the hospital earned two of five possible stars, as seen in the screenshot below.

But there are hospitals in neighboring Maryland and Virginia that earned four-star and five-star ratings. (If you are curious which hospitals got these more impressive marks, you can search here.) The same holds true in the latest rankings from The Leapfrog Group.

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How to cover Omicron and other COVID variants of concern

About Bara Vaida and Tara Haelle

Bara Vaida is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Tara Haelle is medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon of science and research and helping them translate evidence into accurate information.

Creative rendition of SARS-COV-2 virus particles. (Photo courtesy of the NIH Image Gallery via Flickr)

Much of the post-Thanksgiving media coverage has focused on Omicron, the SARS-CoV-2 virus variant detected circulating in South Africa and labeled a variant of concern (VOC) by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26. The other variants of concern are Delta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

WHO added Omicron to the VOC list based on available evidence, including the fact that the variant contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the primary antigen that all WHO’s approved COVID-19 vaccines rely on to evoke an immune response. These mutations are all distinct from the genome of the ancestral (original) virus discovered in Wuhan in late 2019, and many of them already exist in the Delta and Alpha variants.

Some of these mutations have the potential to make the virus more transmissible (like Delta does), cause more severe disease or reduce the effectiveness of vaccines that prevent COVID-19 disease (like Beta does). However, there isn’t enough clinical evidence (real-world evidence from actual infections) to say yet whether the Omicron strain is more transmissible, more pathogenic, or less susceptible to protection from the vaccine.

Journalists should therefore keep in mind that the science of the variant is still evolving and report stories with the caveat that there remain a lot of unknowns, a normal aspect of the scientific process. The public is going to have to wait for more definitive information. Anthony Fauci, M.D., chief medical advisor to President Biden and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told Biden on Nov. 28 that he expects it will be another two weeks until scientists have more definitive answers. That feels like an eternity in COVID-time, and it’s okay to acknowledge that, but it’s also warp speed in real-science time, which is also important to keep in mind and convey to readers.

In the meantime, nothing changes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice for protecting oneself and others from COVID-19: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask indoors in places with people outside your household, avoid large indoor crowds and get tested if you have symptoms.

“We still have no scientific updates on Omicron’s impact on immunity escape or transmissibility,” wrote Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center in a blog post.  “If you’re hearing anything right now…it’s purely speculation. Hypotheses are important to discuss, but not the solid evidence we need. Getting answers takes time because good science takes time. I give it a week or two until the evidence starts rolling in.”

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