Tag Archives: new york times

NYT’s health editor takes over the science section

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.

Barbara Strauch, who has been the deputy science editor charged with coordinating The New York Times‘ health and medical coverage, is stepping up to become that newspaper’s science editor. On March 15, Strauch will take the place of Laura Chang, who led NYT science for six years. Chang will direct the paper’s “cross-departmental” coverage of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to a report from Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell on CJR.org, Strauch will lead a 22-person department (not including freelancers) and plans to maintain the paper’s equal emphasis on both health and science.

In addition to already prominent health topics like genetics, Strauch told CJR that she thinks issues like sociology, demography and psychology will rise in profile in the coming year. She also told the reporters that she plans to hire somebody to replace her as health editor, but that she’s going to remain flexible in terms of department structure for the time being.

In an internal e-mail announcing the promotion, NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller praised Strauch’s work on the paper’s health section.

“What was already a major undertaking, discerning and covering the most important stories in a constant stream of medical research, tracking the changing worlds of physicians and pharmaceuticals, has been a gargantuan task as the costs and politics of health care have become a consuming national issue,” he wrote. “Barbara’s deep understanding of the issues, her exquisite sense of timing and her appreciation for good storytelling have enriched every part of this coverage.”

NYT’s Heffernan contrasts WebMD, MayoClinic.com

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.

New York Times Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan has posted a take on the quality of online health information, framed as a side-by-side review of WebMD and MayoClinic.com. Her characterization of for-profit WebMD as a “hypochondria time suck” has garnered the most attention so far, but it seems almost tame compared to her attacks on the site’s ties to big pharma and her exhortation that users actively block that particular address from their web browsers.

As an example, after praising the Mayo Clinic’s restrained approach to patients looking to self-diagnose a headache (it waits until page eight to suggest OTC painkillers), Heffernan flips to WebMD and describes the site’s approach:

… if you plug “headache” and “WebMD” into Google, the Web opens to the glamorous, photo-dominated “Migraines and Headaches Health Center,” a sound-and-light show that seems itself like a headache trigger. There’s the requisite picture of a tastefully made-up young woman holding her head in exquisite agony. The headache “news,” flush right on the page, comes with more artful photos of lovely people in pain and includes scare headlines like “Headaches: When Is It an Emergency?” The first page contains no hard facts — you have to click and thereby drive up the site’s lucrative click-throughs — but instead quickly transforms visitors from Web users with headaches to hard-core migraineurs and drug consumers.

For the record, WebMD pulls in almost three times as many monthly page views as its nonprofit rival.

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Initiatives not improving patient safety; poor implementation to blame

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.

A large-scale study that followed mistakes in health care delivery at 10 North Carolina hospitals from 2002 to 2007 found that, despite state efforts, there was no improvement in patient safety over the time period. According to The New York Times‘ Denise Grady, the problem lay primarily not in design, but in execution. Even when safeguards were in place, they were not followed.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reviewed thousands of patient records and looked for any of 54 red flags that something had gone wrong.

Dr. [Christopher] Landrigan’s team focused on North Carolina because its hospitals, compared with those in most states, have been more involved in programs to improve patient safety.

But instead of improvements, the researchers found a high rate of problems. About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

The findings were a disappointment but not a surprise, Dr. Landrigan said. Many of the problems were caused by the hospitals’ failure to use measures that had been proved to avert mistakes and to prevent infections from devices like urinary catheters, ventilators and lines inserted into veins and arteries.

Problems cited in the study include a lack of electronic medical records, doctors and nurses regularly working long hours and poor compliance with even simple interventions such as hand washing. Proposed solutions include computerized drug ordering systems and a mandatory nationwide monitoring system.

Ghostwritten textbook just ‘tip of the iceberg’

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.

The New York Times‘ Duff Wilson has uncovered what he calls the first ghostwritten book. Published in 1999 under the names of two prominent psychiatrists, “Recognition and Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders: A Psychopharmacology Handbook for Primary Care” coyly mentioned that it was funded by an unrestricted educational grant from the company that is now GlaxoSmithKline.

What it doesn’t mention is that GSK apparently also paid ghostwriters to create the outline and text of the book, then signed off on the final version. Up to this point, ghostwriting had been restricted to journal articles.

A Washington advocacy group called the Project for Government Oversight released documents detailing the relationship on Monday, but Wilson also  explains how the Times found their copies:

The documents were separately obtained by The New York Times from the Los Angeles law firm of Baum Hedlund, which received them as part of discovery in lawsuits against the drug company, now known as GlaxoSmithKline, involving Paxil. Leemon B. McHenry, a bioethicist with California State University, Northridge, who consults for the law firm, said many similar documents remain sealed. “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Wilson writes that the book was co-published by American Psychiatric Publishing and the American Medical Association. He does not, however, delve deeply into its content or address how it discusses Glaxo’s products.

Community-led effort sparks public health wave

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 in The New York Times, Jessica Reaves writes about how a 2000-06 Chicago community survey embodies the block-by-block, community-reliant approach to public health that it helped inspire.

In the heavily Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood, researchers worked with community leaders to write study questions, then relied on community members to conduct the actual survey. From these roots, the level of community participation snowballed, and locals demonstrated an interest and investment in public health that researchers hasn’t seen before. Today, initiatives born out of that study still provide residents with access to fresh produce, free diabetes screenings, fitness classes and more.

Now, researchers are further localizing and intensifying their effort with a block-by-block approach. The Humboldt Park model has become one that others are working to replicate across the country.

The specifics of the Sinai approach (In Humboldt Park) — change-oriented and invested in the fate of a neighborhood — are distinctive, but they also reflect a sea change in the overall strategy of public health professionals, said Janine Lewis, executive director of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Chicago.

“I think the field is becoming more responsive to the idea of community-based participatory research,” Ms. Lewis said. “Those of us in the field realize that community members are experts on the needs and gifts in their communities, and should be consulted” at every phase of research.

This approach, she added, not only helps investigators devise more meaningful questions, but also means residents feel a part of the process and motivated by the results.

How numbers can be used to buttress falsehoods

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.

On The New York Times‘ Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope interviewed NYU journalism professor Charles Seife, author of Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. While the book’s not exclusively focused on health care, the interview does touch upon numbers and health journalism.

Once you get past all the goofy catchphrases (proofiness! randumbness!), the basic point Siefe makes in the interview, that correlation is not causation, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his elegant, health-related illustration of the phenomenon:

We are extraordinary pattern-matchers. Anytime there is something that is happening, we try to find a cause. But sometimes in medicine, sometimes things are absolutely random. Our minds don’t accept that. We must find a cause for every effect.

A really good example is the autism issue. Whenever a parent has a child who ends up being autistic, the parent more than likely says, “What caused it? How did it happen? Is there anything I could have done differently?” This is part of the reason why people have been so down on the M.M.R. vaccine, because that seems like a proximate cause. It’s something that usually happened shortly before the autism symptoms appeared. So our minds immediately leap to the fact that the vaccine causes autism, when in fact the evidence is strong that there is no link between the M.M.R. vaccine or any other vaccines and autism.

One caveat: Covering Health is not in the book review business, and I haven’t yet read Proofiness beyond what’s been excerpted.