Tip Sheets

Tips for finding patients, consumers for your stories

Lisa Zamosky
Lisa Zamosky

By Lisa Zamosky

I write almost exclusively about navigating the health care system, accessing and paying for health care and have a particular expertise and focus on health reform and health insurance. I’ve now worked in or written about the health care industry for more than 20 years. I began my career working as a clinician in both in- and outpatient settings, and went on to spend nearly a decade working for a large managed care organization and a health care IT startup that eventually sold to a large insurer.

Like all journalists on a beat, I receive volumes of news reports, industry analyses and story pitches every day. These are invaluable sources for staying on top of the market and knowing who to call on for various topics. All this has led to a deep level of expertise and connections in the industry. If I don’t know the right people to talk to, I generally have a sense of either where I need to look, or who to ask for the right person.

For me, finding experts for my stories is almost never a problem. But consumers, now that’s a different issue. I write a weekly health care column for the Los Angeles Times called Healthcare Watch, and each week I include the personal story of one consumer dealing with the issue I’m writing about. The person I feature needs to be willing to have a photo taken for inclusion in the article, and therefore, must live somewhere in Southern California so that a Times photographer can get to him or her quickly.

After nearly two years writing this column, finding a consumer each week remains, by far, my greatest challenge. I wish I could say I’ve come up with some brilliant, simplified process for finding the right person, but alas, I have not. In all honesty, it can be an ugly, stressful ride right up until deadline. Still, miraculously things do almost always work out, and each week I find someone to talk with me for the story.

Here’s how I find them:

Reader emails: I regularly receive emails from readers in response to my columns – often to tell me about some experience they’ve had, with a question or a story they think I should cover. I read every one of them. If appropriate, I ask if they’d be interested in speaking with me at some point for another column, and most of the time they agree.

Advocacy organizations: Organizations that play an advocacy or educational role for patients often keep databases of people willing to share their stories with the press. The same is true of established health care companies and startups I may include. The challenge I face often with these organizations, however, is that they tend to need more time to locate someone than my weekly deadline allows. Still, I reach out. They do sometimes come through.

Public relations professionals: If a PR professional is involved with a company I include in a story, and it’s appropriate, I ask for the name of a consumer in the Southern California area. I’m fortunate to have found several PR professionals who frequently come through. I try to ask about the consumer upfront to give them as much time as possible.

Social media: To find people for my stories I sometimes turn to Twitter and Facebook to put out a request. I also conduct Twitter searches in an effort to locate someone who has been communicating online about the particular issue I’m writing about, and then make direct contact to see if they’d be willing to speak with me.

Keep moving: Until I have confirmation about a consumer’s availability and appropriateness for my story, I don’t sit around waiting. I almost always put out multiple feelers through several different channels to make sure I get someone in time or have a backup in case someone falls through (and I always let people I’ve asked for help locating someone know this upfront). I never discount even the weakest of possibilities. More often than not, I’ve found, it’s the very person I was absolutely certain wouldn’t come through who usually does.

Lisa Zamosky (@lisazamosky) is an independent journalist who writes the Healthcare Watch column for the Los Angeles Times and is a nationally known expert on health insurance, the Affordable Care Act and consumer health. She writes for WebMD and the California Healthcare Foundation, and she is the author of Healthcare, Insurance, and You: The Savvy Consumer's Guide.