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How leveraging a study’s raw data can help kick up your coverage a notch Date: 09/29/16

Markian Hawryluk

By Markian Hawryluk

Each week my email inbox is swamped with press releases about hundreds of new medical studies. The ones that catch my eye are generally those that I can build on in some way to make them more meaningful for my readers at the Bend Bulletin in Oregon. And that’s precisely what happened this summer with our coverage of a study on pharmacy access from one our state’s universities.

The study was conducted by researchers at Oregon State University. But more importantly for me, the researchers used Oregon-specific data to reach their conclusions. I knew I could build on the data for a story that meant more to my readers, and link it to larger trends in health care.

The study looked at the numbers of hours that pharmacies were open in communities throughout the state and then compared those numbers with readmission rates at local hospitals. Hospital readmission rates have become a big deal for hospitals ever since the Affordable Care Act directed Medicare to reduce payments to hospitals with high rates.

After reading the full study, I tracked down the senior researcher and asked some of my usual questions: What did he feel was the most significant finding of the study? How strong is this finding? How might this finding be wrong? What additional research needs to be done?

Then I also asked if he could share the data used in the study. The researchers sent me two spreadsheets. One was a list of all the pharmacies in Oregon, including their ZIP codes and Primary Care Service Areas (PCSAs). The other was a list of hospitals and their readmission rates.

Initially my plan was to find the pharmacy that was open the fewest hours. The published study provided the range of open pharmacy hours per week for the primary care service areas, but did not identify the PCSA or the pharmacy with the least. It would be a few days until the lead author could talk to me – past my deadline – so I decided to try to find that pharmacy on my own. I sorted the list by service area to find which PCSAs had only one pharmacy. I then searched for those pharmacies online to find their hours of operation, trying to find the one that was open only 54 hours a week.

I found a couple that met that definition, but one in Heppner, Ore., was actually open only 45 hours per week. The store that housed the pharmacy was open 54 hours, but the pharmacy itself was closed during the store’s weekend hours. I called the pharmacy and was able to speak to the wife and husband pharmacists who owned and operated the pharmacy. I then called the hospital administrator at the local hospital to see how the lack of pharmacy hours impacted the hospital and its patients.

I also needed to find out how our local hospital was affected and was able to speak to its pharmacy manager. I included the number of pharmacy hours and the hospital readmission rates for the four hospitals in our region, which lined up with the finding of the study.

Ideally, I would have liked to have found a patient in Heppner who had been discharged but had to be readmitted when he or she was unable to refill a prescription. But I wasn’t able to find that example by my deadline.

I worked with our graphics department on a map to run with the story. We wanted to plot the pharmacies on an illustration of the state, but with more than 100 in the state it was getting rather messy. Instead, we color-coded each county by the number of pharmacies and then plotted each hospital on the map with a color code for its readmission rate.

In the end, I was able to show my readers how something that many of them take for granted – that their local pharmacy will be open when they need medications – can be a challenge for others in the state and with very real consequences.

Markian Hawryluk is a health reporter with the Bend Bulletin in Oregon. He previously covered health for the Houston Chronicle, American Medical News and a variety of health policy publications in Washington, D.C. His projects on home births, organ transplants and extreme preemies have won awards from AHCJ and other journalism organizations.