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How one veteran reporter is bringing a fresh eye to the health beat Date: 05/05/16

Rick Jurgens

By Mary Otto

The Delta Dental Foundation has come up with an innovative approach to bringing care to Colorado’s “dental deserts.”

The nonprofit has launched a $3.3 million initiative that has provided 16 medical organizations in the state with the funding to buy dental equipment and hire dental hygienists to bring oral health services to places where they have been hard to find. The initiative, called the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project is targeting communities such as Littleton, where on a recent day, 9-year-old Nathan Martin visited a local medical clinic to receive a dental checkup and preventive care from a dental hygienist.

Reporter David Olinger (@dolingerdp)brought the story alive for readers of The Denver Post. Olinger, who describes himself as a “veteran reporter new to the health care beat” has worked at the newspaper since 1997. Over the years, he has produced award-winning pieces on the struggles of physically and mentally wounded soldiers who were sent back to combat, the state’s foreclosure crisis and the victimization of homeowners by predatory real estate investors. He also played a key role in the Post's Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Columbine High School massacre.

These days, amid reports on teen birth rates and the implications of the theft of the powerful narcotic drug fentanyl from a local hospital, Olinger regularly picks up on stories with oral health angles.

In this Q and A, he talks about how he got interested in writing about Colorado’s dental deserts, the concerns that drove his coverage of a University of Colorado nutrition expert’s ties with Coca-Cola, and where he – and other reporters – might want to look when writing about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes.

Q: You write on such a vast array of health topics, what attracted you to the story on the Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project?

A: I was first attracted to the story by a public relations agency offering a plateful of ideas to a veteran reporter new to the health care beat. I liked the dental-physical integration story because it sounded new and concerned kids who were getting no dental care.

Q: When you got into your reporting on it, what surprised you or appealed to you most about the initiative?

A: I was surprised by the long-term damage and pain a child could suffer by kindergarten without dental checkups.

Q: Your story offered insights into an innovation that is using the state's infrastructure of medical clinics, and its workforce of dental hygienists, to deliver dental care to communities with a scarcity of dental providers. Are there other innovations that you or your colleagues have written about, or are planning to write about, to address the need for dental care in those eight "dental deserts" you mentioned in your story?

A: We have not written about those dental deserts. Too many stories about fentanyl thieves and doctors deserting our general hospital in the meantime.

Q: Another story you covered recently with oral health implications was the debate over warning labels on smoke-free nicotine products. Do you have a piece of advice for reporters who are following the debate over the safety of electronic cigarettes in their own states? What do you expect will be the next news peg for writing about smokeless tobacco safety?

A: I wrote that story on deadline without having a chance to visit an electronic cigarette store and see how the product works. Given more time, that's the first thing I would do. We have had other stories about e-cigarettes exploding and inflicting serious injuries. That's where I would look for other stories.

Q: Battles over soda taxes and soda consumption also have an oral health angle. Late last year, you explored the relationship of University of Colorado School of Medicine professor James Hill with the Coca-Cola Co. Hill launched a global campaign to fight obesity while accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company. You reported that he also sought a job for his son, while working with Coca Cola. You also wrote that Hill said support from the company allowed him "to present research to other scientists and to encourage physical activity and healthy eating habits." Your coverage offered an important reminder of the influences that can drive nutrition research. Do you have any tips for reporters trying to stay vigilant to such influences while keeping up with deadline pressures to write about new research?

A: The story about James Hill and Coca-Cola did get tweeted around the world, an unusual experience for me. In this case, there were a few clues in advance of the Colorado conference. It was sponsored by a journalism organization I'd never heard of. The list of speakers included people from Coke and McDonald's and a university professor who maintained that they were falsely blamed for an obesity crisis, but nobody with an opposing view. Then there were the Coke products for lunch. With a notable exception, I thought too many health reporters swallowed the sweet stuff without asking tough questions about the one-sided presentation and the corporate sponsors.

Q: With so much to do on any given day, how do you decide where to place your attention? What is your strategy to covering your beat?

A: I get calls and emails every day from people touting whizzbang gadgets and amazing disease cures, which makes it hard to spot the gem in a cheap jewelry case. What I'm trying to do is develop a trusted list of sources, so I can seek their opinions about the latest "advances" in medical care.