From #ahcj15 back to the beat: Covering disparities in health

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at

At a conference, it all seems easy. So many ideas, so many enthusiastic colleagues, so many potential stories.


Kris Hickman/AHCJ Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED-San Francisco’s health blog, asks a question after hearing from physician and bestselling author Abraham Verghese, M.D., on the opening night of Health Journalism 2015.

With nearly four days packed with sessions, there’s no shortage of new contacts, resources and data. But now what?

Where should reporters start in trying to dissect their material into something usable, especially when it comes to the great wide territory of social determinants and health care?

First, specialize it for your readers. At #ahcj15, panelists addressed writing for trade publications, offered tips for freelancers and showed how to drill down into data for different areas — from cities and states to countries and continents. Know your audience and what they need to cover the health gap.

Another idea is to look beyond your beat. Covering health disparities inevitably means examining factors often tied to other beats. Consider teaming up with a colleague covering another area for a fresh look at what else is at stake for your readers and community. Some possibilities:

  • Housing: Density, location, affordability all have an impact on health. Quality also matters – lead paint, mold and other issues are worth exploring.
  • Transportation: Free clinics or health coverage only helps if patients can get there. How do your area’s options – or lack of options – impact care? Are home visits or house calls making a comeback?
  • Economics – No shortage of topics here: unemployment, costs, wages, paid sick leave, poverty, access to benefits and health insurance
  • LGBT: It’s not just a marriage issue. This often overlooked community also has its own unique set of health considerations. Possible areas to explore range from cancer risks and mental health to heart disease and access to care.
  • Race and demographics: Data can be a rich source to mine for possible stories – what health issues are affecting certain groups. What role does immigration reform – or lack thereof – have?
  • Food and nutrition: School lunches, access to grocery stores, SNAP and WIC offer a range of potential stories.
  • Education: School health clinics, immunizations, infrastructure (are the buildings “healthy?”), access to recess, meals and school transportation can all impact health. Another idea: health literacy.
  • Washington, D.C.: Sure, a lot of stories stem from the nation’s capital but most are big picture. Take a look at what congressional funding, legislation mean for your readers. What story isn’t getting told?
  • Statehouses: So much policy change is happening not in Congress but in state legislatures and city councils. What’s happing locally to shape health care in cities, towns and states near you?

Last, don’t get lost in the data. Numbers to back up trends do matter, and health reporters naturally want to show the evidence. But ultimately health journalists have to tie it all together in a way that matters not only to readers but also policymakers and other key stakeholders. As Joanne Silberner, former NPR storyteller now at the University of Washington recently wrote from #ahcj15, the narrative part of journalism can make the deepest impact.

She cited Stanford physician and author Abraham Verghese:

“Stories are the way we extract meaning from our experiences,” Verghese said. Stories can help doctors diagnose illness, and also put an experience into perspective.

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