5-Star Friday: Our staff pick some gems of health care storytelling

5 Star FridayIt’s easy to get caught up in words like media, journalism, and news, and forget that what we do — and why we do it — is the joy of telling stories.

In health care the topics we cover can run the gamut from the mundane or heavily scientific, to the heart-wrenching and controversial. But they are all ultimately human stories.

We take comfort in that. And we’re comforted that we have writers — like those featured below — who still revel in a good yarn.

Michael Joyce | Multimedia Producer

The Symptoms of Dying • by Sara Manning Peskin MD • The New York Times

Hard to know which is tougher: writing about death, or reading about it.

Michael Joyce

What neurologist-in-training, Sara Manning Peskin, shows us is why it’s hard to “go gentle into that good night.”

Before hospice came along, mostly doctors and nurses were the only ones privy to the ominous troika of air hunger, terminal agitation, and the death rattle. But Manning Peskin — by giving us all a peek into how and why these tell telltale symptoms occur — also seems to be giving us permission to bring how-we-die out of the closet.

With clear language she reminds us: “You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing … we’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living.”

Joy Victory | Deputy Managing Editor

The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth • by Nina Martin, ProPublica, and Renee Montagne, NPR

Joy Victory

This is an incredible work of investigative health care journalism that’s also an incredible work of narrative storytelling.

The piece follows the death of neonatal nurse Lauren Bloomstein, who despite her and her physician-husband’s best efforts to fight back against a chaotic healthcare system, died from HELLP syndrome, a serious variant of preeclampsia. Interwoven with the details of her unfolding medical nightmare are facts about the national crisis facing women in America, which ranks the worst among developed nations for maternal deaths. Kudos to these reporters for for shining a big, glaring spotlight on the reasons this is happening.

Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

Playing Games with Drugs at the Wall Street Journal • by Dean Baker • Center for Economic Policy and Research

Kevin Lomangino

The Wall Street Journal editorial page reliably promotes an extreme pro-business, anti-regulation agenda that is problematic when applied to health care. So it was great to see this thinking shredded in an intelligent counterpoint by Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Baker’s premise is that our scandalous drug pricing system — which a WSJ commentary predictably claims is necessary to ensure innovation —  is analogous to paying firefighters when they show up to put out a blaze.

No one thinks that firefighters get ripped off because they don’t walk away with millions of dollars when they save an endangered family. They get paid their salary (which we can argue whether too high or too low) for work that we recognize as dangerous, but which will occasionally result in enormous benefits to society.

Would that drug development were viewed a bit more as a public service rather than a profit center. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Baker’s argument does capture some of the problems with a system whose costs are disproportionately borne by people unlucky enough to get sick. When it comes to drugs, says Baker, “we are now largely in the situation of paying the firefighters when they show up at the burning house.”

Kathlyn Stone | Associate Editor

Island of Doubt series • by William Heisel • Center for Health Journalism blog

Kat Stone

Bill Heisel’s series called “Island of Doubt” published on the Center for Health Journalism blog reflects a healthy brand of skepticism I wish were more common in health journalism. In this 6-part (so far) series, Bill takes us to places we don’t often go: How to deal with a source that’s lied to you, how to verify patient stories and why you should always verify a source’s credentials.

Mistakes happen to the best of us but experienced and less experienced journalists alike may get burned a lot less often if they take Bill’s advice on how to handle these tough situations. His credibility to act as guide on these topics comes from a long career as an investigative reporter and as an expert in health metrics and evaluation. Not coincidentally, Bill is also one of HealthNewsReview.org’s valued long-term editorial contributors.

Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

A surgeon’s secret: As she operated on babies’ birth defects, a doctor hid her own diagnosis • by Charlotte Huff • STAT

Jill U. Adams

We here at HealthNewsReview.org usually are all about transparency. And yet the story I offer up for 5-star Friday is about keeping secrets. A woman with spina bifida goes to medical school and becomes a pediatric surgeon, who counsels parents about their options for their fetuses with spina bifida, including in utero surgery. Dr. Mary Austin is clearly high-functioning and she doesn’t want her patients (parents) to know of her condition, for fear that knowledge may bias the difficult decision they face about their own unborn child.

It’s a great story, well-told.


5-star Friday is a regular feature on HealthNewsReview.org. You can find a list of previous installments HERE.

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Comments (1)

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Aleta Kerrick

June 27, 2017 at 6:36 pm

The firefighter-pharma analogy could have been developed much further than it was. If firefighters were paid by-the-fire, they’d be tempted to set fires. In a similar fashion, our health care system, heavily influenced by pharma, keeps redefining who is healthy and who is sick, creating more drug purchasers. And a-la-carte payments to fire departments would not encourage them to promote & enforce fire prevention measures – just like drug companies (and to a large extent our entire health care system) have no desire to promote healthful lifestyle choices.