Tag Archives: chicago tribune

Tsouderos looks at federal funding of alternative medicine

In her latest series, Chicago Tribune reporter Trine Tsouderos, whose award-winning reporting has brought her hard-nosed approach to investigating less-proven areas of medicine, which will be familiar to many members, to bear upon the federal government.

This time, her target is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which she calls “a small, little-known branch of the National Institutes of Health … launched a dozen years ago to study alternative treatments used by the public but not accepted by mainstream medicine.” According to Tsouderos, the center has spent $1.4 since its inception, some of it on curious projects.

A Tribune examination of hundreds of NCCAM grants, dozens of scientific papers, 12 years of NCCAM documents and advisory council meeting minutes found that the center has spent millions of taxpayer dollars on studies with questionable grounding in science.

You’ll want to read it for yourself, but highlights include sentences such as “The cancer treatment involving coffee enemas was based on an idea from the early 1900s, and patients who chose to undergo the risky regimen lived an average of just four months” and “Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn’t do a lot for our ability to heal a wound.”

It’s not all just cherry-picking wacky studies, of course. Tsouderos also looks deep into the powerful alternative medicine industry as well as the scientific rigor, or lack thereof, that sits at its core.

Americans unprepared to pay for long-term care

In the Chicago Tribune, Deborah Shelton examines how unprepared Americans are to pay for their own long-term care needs as they age. Long-term care tends to slip under the radar because, as one of Shelton’s sources told her, “People buy insurance for their life because they know they are going to die, for their car because they know that can get in an accident and for their health because they know they can get sick, but people don’t tend to buy insurance because they think they are going to need someone to help them take a bath.”

faces-of-aging-largeLong-term care encompasses everything from nursing home fees to in-home assistance with everyday routines. It all comes with a price tag; Medicare only covers a limited amount and Medicaid programs apply only to those below certain economic thresholds. That leaves the middle class, who can’t afford the services but don’t really qualify for Medicaid, in the lurch, Shelton writes.

Most people assume Medicare will pay the bills, but the program covers long-term care only under certain conditions and for a limited time. While Medicaid covers long-term care, beneficiaries have to be poor or willing to “spend down” their assets to be eligible. Private insurance can be expensive and excludes applicants with serious medical problems.

As a result, many families pay out of pocket until they exhaust their resources and then turn to Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act attempted to fill in the blanks, but long-term care provisions of that reform plan withered under intense cost pressure.

An initiative that would have incorporated long-term care into the Obama administration’s health reform plan was scrapped in October after actuaries determined that it would not be financially self-sustainable over the long haul. The Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act would have created a voluntary, self-funded, employer-based insurance option to help people save for long-term care.


Baby’s death illustrates how health IT can introduce complexity, error to system

Chicago Tribune reporters Judith Graham and Cynthia Dizikes explore the pitfalls of health information technology through the story of an infant boy who survived despite being born months early and weighing just 1.5 pounds, only to be killed by a sodium chloride overdose when a pharmacy tech entered information into the wrong field of his electronic medical record.


Photo by Christiana Care via Flickr

The tech’s fatal clerical error was compounded by disabled alarms on a compounding machine, incorrect labeling on an IV bag and an ignored lab test. The heart of the errors, the reporters write, seems to be that all the different systems involved don’t communicate.

Almost all medication requests at Advocate are transmitted by a doctor’s keystroke to the hospital pharmacy’s drug-dispensing system. But in this case, there was no electronic connection with the automated compounding system that prepared the IV bag for baby Burkett, a specialized device that handles low-volume, highly individualized orders.

So a technician transcribed the order by hand, and an error was introduced.

Electronic communication gaps are common at large hospitals, which typically use upward of 50 to 100 different information systems at their facilities, with different technologies used in emergency rooms, labs, pharmacies and other medical departments, said Ross Koppel, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies health information technologies.

“To some degree these systems talk to each other, but mostly they don’t, so hospitals have to design custom-made software ‘bridges’ to make this happen,” Koppel said. With each jury-rigged software solution comes the potential for new software bugs, transcription errors and other problems.

Winning work: Swine flu, costs and mental health

In the SPJ’s 2010 Sunshine State Awards, AHCJ members made their presence felt in the “Medical/Health Care/Science Reporting” category, where they snagged two of the three spots.

The Miami Herald; John Dorschner; Healthcare costs
“Thanks to Dorschner’s detail-oriented reporting, readers of The Miami Herald learned just how much a 45-hour hospital stay for thyroid treatment might cost. Dorschner did not stop there either, confronting the hospital with the charges and asking them to justify the expenses – which they declined to do.”

The Palm Beach Post; Stacey Singer; Swine flu
“So many stories were written about swine flu in 2009 but few of them provided the human details and intimate touches of Stacey Singer’s reports. She introduces us to the people who were deeply affected by the flu, especially the expectant mothers and their children who were most vulnerable to it. She tells their stories with vivid, insightful details.”

In Mental Health America’s Awards for Excellence in Coverage, Portrayals of Mental Health Issues David Jackson pulled in the investigative reporting award for the Compromised Care series he did with Gary Marx. Read The Chicago Tribune‘s full package here. AHCJ members can read an article about how they reported the story.

Legacy of Agent Orange continues in U.S., Vietnam

The Chicago Tribune is in the middle of an ambitious five-part series in which reporters Jason Grotto and Tim Jones seek to shed light on one of the great gray areas of veterans’ medicine: the effects of Agent Orange. The first installment gave background on the use and consequences of Agent Orange.

Subsequent pieces chronicle the veterans’ battle for compensation, the suspected link between the defoliant and birth defects in Vietnam and continued pollution in that country from defoliants. The last, not-yet-published piece will reveal “documents showing that decisions by the U.S. military and chemical companies that manufactured the defoliants used in Vietnam made the spraying more dangerous than it had to be.”

The authors explain how they did it:

Vietnam. Photo by jrwooley6 via Flickr.

With assistance from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Tribune spent a month traveling to eight provinces throughout Vietnam, conducting nearly two dozen interviews with civilians and former soldiers who say they were exposed to the defoliants.

The newspaper used a database of every spraying mission, mapping software and a GPS device to help corroborate their stories. And in the U.S., the paper researched thousands of pages of government documents and traveled to the homes of veterans to gauge the impact and measure the cost in both dollars and human misery.

According to the reporters, 65 percent of Agent Orange and its defoliant relatives were contaminated with the super-toxin dioxin, and some even contained arsenic. The full impact of this chemical onslaught is unknown, but the Tribune reporters have tracked down a number of alarming anecdotes and numbers.

“We do not know the answer to the question: What happened to Vietnam veterans?” said Jeanne Stellman, an epidemiologist who has spent decades studying Agent Orange for the American Legion and the National Academy of Sciences. “The government doesn’t want to study this because of international liability and issues surrounding chemical warfare. And they’re going to win because they’re bigger and everybody’s getting old and there are new wars to worry about.”