Health Journalism 2011: Conference recap

Health Journalism 2011
Tentative program
Conference Hotel
Especially for freelancers
Freelance PitchFest
Get a mentor
Field Trips
2011 Exhibitors
Getting there
Share a room or ride

A record 625 people attended this year's conference!

We were proud to welcome new members and old friends to Health Journalism 2011 for the dozens of panels, workshops, field trips, newsmaker briefings, receptions and more.

Stories were pitched, skills were sharp­ened, cutting-edge technologies were experienced firsthand. Those are just a few of the highlights of the record-set­ting Health Journalism 2011, AHCJ’s annual conference, held April 14-17 in Philadelphia.

More than 625 attendees – a record – from 37 states and six countries were on hand, including about 100 fellows – also a record – through seven different fel­lowship programs, funded by five private foundations.

In his keynote address during the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism luncheon, G. Michael Lem­ole Jr., M.D., the University of Arizona neurosurgeon who helped save the life of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, recounted how the local health system worked the day Giffords was shot.

“Everyone made a big deal of what we did, but it’s what we do every day … This is academic medicine at its best,” Lemole said.

The Philadelphia native was just one of dozens of speakers and panelists. Con­ference attendees found the opportunity to hear from Lemole helpful in thinking about their own reporting.

“It’s always good to hear from the other side. We’re always asking the questions and don’t usually get a chance to hear how they viewed us,” said Stephanie Nano, as­sistant health and science editor for The Associated Press in New York.

As always, the health journalism con­ference made news.

On the conference’s first day, Medicare chief Donald Berwick unveiled a govern­ment website, the “Health Indicators Warehouse,” and offered a live demonstra­tion. He said the site offers “a treasure trove of data,” including information never re­leased before in an easily accessible form, including patient safety data, preventive health care indicators, Medicare payment claims and hospital performance at the state and hospital referral region level.

To reduce health care costs, he promised continued scrutiny of Medicare Advantage plans, the government-subsidized private health plans, noting that the Affordable Care Act rewards top-performing plans with bonus payments. The law creates ac­countable care organizations, in which health care providers coordinate patient care in various medical settings. The new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Inno­vation “can now nurture invention around the country... that have the effect of lower­ing cost and raising quality,” he said.

Later in the conference, a packed room of attendees heard from Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, about genetic discoveries that can lead to advances in understanding health and disease.

Such genomic research is possible be­cause sequencing costs have come down dramatically allowing for an explosion of research findings, especially from The Can­cer Genome Atlas project. Research com­ing from this project has already led to a test that tells women with a common type of breast cancer whether they need or don’t need chemotherapy. The test spares some women the toxicity and cost of chemother­apy and saves the health care system about $100 million dollars, Collins said.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that new technology always costs more,” said Col­lins.

The NIH hopes to take opportunities from what Collins calls the “golden era of discovery in the molecular basis for disease” and help researchers cross the gap between fundamental knowledge to FDA approved therapeutics. Most potential therapeutics fail in the pre-clinical stage; however, Col­lins sees that failure as an opportunity for something new and innovative.

Collins said that one worrisome note is the recently approved 2011 budget. The NIH will receive $30.924 billion dollars, which is down 1 percent. This is highly unusual because there was only one time in the past 30 years that the NIH budget has dropped.

The conference began with three bus­loads of attendees taking field trips to see hands-on research, cancer treatment, medical procedure and training for future health professionals.

One field trip visited ECRI Institute facilities, where attendees visited the na­tion’s only real-life CSI lab focused on fo­rensic health care accident investigations and took a virtual tour into the future of health care with insights from the new federal health care technology horizon scanning program. The same group’s last stop was at the world-renowned Mütter Museum, part of the oldest professional society in the nation, The College of Phy­sicians of Philadelphia (founded in 1787). At the museum, AHCJ members explored the disturbingly informative collections and specimens, from medical oddities to antique surgical instruments.

Another group visited the University of Pennsylvania’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center, where radiation oncologists at­tack cancer with a beam of particles shot out of a 220-ton cyclotron and delivered into patients at 100,000 miles per second.

The group split to tour either a high-tech facility where personalized medicines are made, or Penn’s new 22-bed Neuro­critical Care Unit. At the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, AHCJ mem­bers donned bunny suits, lab booties and surgical gloves to experience this “clean” laboratory suite where patients’ own cells are engineered to make therapies uniquely suited to their diseases. At the Neurocriti­cal Unit, members saw how the multi-disciplinary Neurocritical Care Team rap­idly integrates neurologic expertise with multiple streams of monitored data. The team discussed cross-disciplinary ways Penn is developing specialty applications for technology and pioneering collabora­tions in medicine, computer science, bio­engineering and sociology.

At a stop on the Drexel University Col­lege of Medicine campus, attendees saw new methods of teaching doctors to have a good “bedside manner” by teaching them early on how to interact with patients and talk to them in a way that encourages open communication. The Physician and Patient course takes place inside a suite of exam rooms equipped with digital au­dio and visual recording capabilities for use in “standardized patient” encounters. Standardized patients are actors who are taught to portray various clinical condi­tions and who are trained to provide feed­back to students and residents.

Also at Drexel, members saw new tech­nology making it easier for medical stu­dents to learn via robots. Drexel’s brand new state-of-the-art Blue Cross Medi­cal Simulation Center is equipped with the latest high-fidelity patient simulators that exhibit life-like vital signs, includ­ing heartbeats, blood pressures, and body and eye movements. These robots are pro­grammed to display a variety of normal and abnormal conditions, and to respond realistically to student interventions, such as intubation, drug injection or cardiac defibrillation.

At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, some field trip attendees test drove the da Vinci surgical robot and learned how the top-ranked pediatric hospital is training the next generation of surgeons. A tour of the hospital’s Cardiac Center, with two state-of-the-art operating rooms, equipped floor to ceiling windows and oversize mon­itors to watch small hearts become exposed to the expert hands that repair congenital heart defects in small patients.

At the Dr. Robert and Dorothy Rector Clinical Skills Center at Thomas Jeffer­son University, attendees saw how health care works are being trained using state-of-the-art patient simulators. “Sim Man” and “Harvey” reproduced physiologi­cal signs, such as blood pressure, heart and breathing sounds, but also allowed students to practice basic and advanced clinical skills. At the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, AHCJ members saw the integration of complementary therapies, with physi­cians demonstrating therapies that in­cluded acupuncture, hormone replace­ment therapy using pellets, high-dose vitamin C to treat cancer and mindful­ness-based stress reduction.

Those who opted out of the field trips had the chance to attend workshops de­signed for journalists to hone their skills in using databases and maps in their research and reporting, improved reporting about health care research, and adding multime­dia elements for stories and projects.

Seventy-one freelance journalists took advantage of the ever-popular Freelance PitchFest. For most of an afternoon, 18 editors took part in 276 appointments with writers. The annual event was just one of several offerings to freelancers, with panels and a breakfast forum de­signed for that particular segment of AHCJ membership.

On Sunday morning of the confer­ence, its perennial “how-to” sessions were crowded and covered hospital quality and finances, using evidence-based research tools, and a special session on health re­porting for broadcasters.

The conference offered almost 40 additional panels, classes and network­ing opportunities. With more than 150 speakers, the panels covered a wide vari­ety of subjects – research, policy, public health, business, clinical medicine and journalism.