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Another sponsored health news issue: retired columnist gets column back – now paid by health care industry

3 months ago we blogged about a longtime Tampa Bay TV anchorman shifting – in retirement – to being a paid spokesman for a Medicare Advantage plan.

Now we see that former Charleston, SC The Post and Courier columnist Ken Burger is doing promotions for a local health care provider organization, but it’s how this is happening that makes it especially noteworthy and troublesome.

On his website, Burger states that he “spent almost 40 years writing for two South Carolina newspapers, a career that included stints covering sports, business, politics and life in the Palmetto State.”   He now works for Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston.

The health care provider’s website states:

“When Burger was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 he invited his newspaper readers on a year-long journey through surgery and subsequent treatments until his last radiation session at Roper St. Francis Cancer Care. He joined forces with RSFH to start the golf tournament in 2009, and he still spends time at the center visiting cancer patients.”

That “joining forces” took place while he was still a newspaper employee.  Do most newspapers allow staffers to “join forces” with local industry in fundraising ventures?

He retired from The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston last summer.  But last week the newspaper gave him back a column.  Well, they didn’t actually GIVE it back.  It’s now sponsored by Roper St. Francis.  Here’s what he wrote about his new column:

I invite you to join me every other Thursday here in the pages of my old newspaper haunt where we will explore some of the untold stories of the healthcare industry locally and the major issues facing us nationally.

And don’t be fooled. I am not trying to pretend I am not working for Roper St. Francis Healthcare. Indeed, I’m proud to represent this organization, one of a handful in this area I would consider lending my name to.

Hmmm.  The “untold stories” of the healthcare industry will now be told (sold to the paper) by someone being paid by the healthcare industry – in a column that looks and feels remarkably like his old column when he was only being paid by the newspaper, not by the health care provider.  The initial column wasn’t labeled as advertising.  You had to look way at the bottom to see the line “Sponsored by Roper St. Francis Healthcare.”  Just below where Burger invites people to email him – at a Roper St. Francis email address.

On a personal level, we’re pleased that Burger is happy about his personal health decisions and outcome.

But this is a journalism ethics issue for The Post and Courier.  To make matters worse, the newspaper’s website still lists him as a staff member.

It’s interesting that one reader already left a comment on Burger’s blog, asking if he would use “the unique perspective and access you have to the Roper folks to talk about best practices and ways for healthcare to be better and cheaper for the consumer?”

What should readers expect? And what will they receive in the column?

  • How will the column explore “the major issues facing us nationally”?
  • Will it be only Roper’s perspective?
  • Will it truly be a national perspective?
  • Who decides which stories are “untold” and should be addressed in the column? And how they will be addressed?
  • Will, for example, untold stories of overdiagnosis and overtreatment be told in this health care provider-sponsored column?
  • While the health care provider boasts on its website, “We were the first in the state to bring you CyberKnife and the first in the Lowcountry to offer the da Vinci robot,” will the column explore some of the growing questions about some of the non-evidence-based proliferation of such technologies? (An example of Cyberknife questions here; just the latest on many robotic surgery questions here.)
  • While the health care provider boasts on its website about $125 screening for cardiac calcium scoring (among other screenings), will the column explore evidence-based recommendations such as that by the US Preventive Services Task Force that recommends against such screening in low-risk people?

These are just a few of the questions that make this a newspaper ethical issue.  Maybe the paper has thought about all of this.  Future columns will be the proof.

There are examples of health care industry-sponsored health news columns that investigate tough questions about the health care industry – with no apparent strings attached.  Susan Perry’s “Second Opinion” column on MinnPost.com is one that comes immediately to mind. It’s sponsored by a Minnesota health plan. But she’s a veteran health care journalist whose writings are not industry messages.

Red flags go up when we see a column written by a grateful former patient who is now being paid by the health care provider to whom he is grateful.

Please note:  Just last week we wrote about the FCC exploring new regulations against broadcast “pay-for-play” arrangements, many of them involving sponsored health care “news.”  It’s clear this is not just a broadcast issue.

 

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