Data: Calif. for-profits order more C-sections

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for California Watch, Nathanael Johnson leads with the numbers on his story about for-profit hospitals and C-sections. Appropriately for a story based on a hand-built database, classic health anecdotes don’t even surface until after the 20th paragraph. Instead, readers are immediately hit with this:

A database compiled from state birthing records revealed that, all factors considered, women are at least 17 percent more likely to have a cesarean section at a for-profit hospital than at one that operates as a non-profit. A surgical birth can bring in twice the revenue of a vaginal delivery.

It’s a powerful and nuanced – if not unexpected – finding. Johnson digs deep in the numbers, and hits on a litany of confounding factors and caveats. In the end, some of his most surprising findings were that patients at for-profit hospitals in poorer areas of Los Angeles were the most likely to receive C-sections, and that variation in these surgeries can be attributed to everything from cultural differences, patient preferences and even a desire to avoid malpractice suits.

How Johnson put it all together

For health journalists, the most exciting part of the entire package is likely Johnson’s detailed “how I did it” sidebar. He talks about how he chose which data to pursue, how he created the database behind the story, and even which specific Excel functions he used to find meaning within the numbers. Of particular interest are the sections in which he lists the sources he used to help him understand what he was seeing within the numbers, and to guide him toward his subsequent conclusions.

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