Healthcare Journalism: Leading the way to Change

Julian Routh

Editor in Chief of Off the Bluff Magazine and the Duquesne Duke

When the government removed all state wards from one of Illinois’s most recognizable residential treatment centers earlier this year, it wasn’t doing so out of the good faith of honorable health care. It did so because Sadie Waterford Manor – just outside of Chicago – was the target of an extensive investigation; not by the government, but by three veteran reporters from the Chicago Tribune. In a thorough five-part series called “Harsh Treatment,” the major metro daily revealed a culture of sexual assault, abuse and neglect in Sadie Waterford and other centers, which treat hundreds of troubled children.

The media – not only traditional print – has always been able to alter the inner workings of the health care industry, changing the way people think about practices, influencing legislation and sometimes saving lives.  Health care journalism spawned from American consumerism. When the number of medicines on the market grew exceedingly larger, buyers turned to medicine magazines for information. Miracle doctors crammed the airwaves. There were more advertisements for magic pills than magic politicians.

But there was always something lacking. Thorough analyses were few and far between, and most media outlets didn’t have the space, time or money for extensive coverage.

That changed, though, in the late part of the 20th century, when investigative reporting took on new life with unlimited space on the web.  Then came a barrage of undercover reports, honest medical information from experts and, of course, advertisements.

In 2012, PBS Frontline and the Center for Public Integrity put out “Dollars and Dentists,” an honest, brutal look at the broken dental care system.  A year later, Elizabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times dedicated a series to why the United States has the most costly health care in the world.

With these newfound measures came a greater need for accountability from the industry’s biggest representatives. Some succeeded, others failed.

When health care giant UPMC vowed to bar 182,000 patients from its facilities in its feud with Highmark, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was on the front lines. The newspaper continued to press UPMC on its questionable tactics, only to be barred from its gift shops.

“Maybe we’ll just add some news boxes near the hospitals,” the Post-Gazette responded in an editorial, while numerous commenters – most of which were UPMC employees or family members – came to the paper’s defense.

A news stand next to a hospital represents much more than a source for waiting room entertainment. A stack of papers serves as a constant reminder that someone is watching.

The future of healthcare journalism depends on the future of the art itself; will extensive, investigative journalism remain sustainable in a climate that is so uncertain? With staffs getting smaller and money tighter, will there be a place in news for healthy dialogue?

There better be, because lives depend on it.

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