5-Star Friday: Smörgåsbord

5-Star FridayFull disclosure: there is no theme that neatly ties together all the fantastic stories our staff have picked out for this 5-Star Friday.

It’s an incredible smörgåsbord which, if nothing else, serves as a reminder of just how vast the health care beat is.

There’s some really provocative reporting and writing here. Have a look and, if you agree, pass along the one you enjoyed the most.


Gary Schwitzer | Publisher & Founder

From hope to medical nightmare: Despite FDA warnings, state boards lag in taking action on controversial MS treatment • by John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Kristina Fiore and Matt Wynn of MedPage Today

Gary Schwitzer

Is the struggling news industry economy making watchdog journalism impossible at local newspapers?  Not with John Fauber at a Milwaukee paper that faces many or all of the same challenges that other newspapers face.  Of course, he benefits from the collaboration with colleagues at MedPage Today.  Still, Fauber’s bulldogged approach to watchdog health care journalism stands out in local news.

This “hope to nightmare” story is the latest in the team’s Bad Medicine project.

By now, many who follow health care news closely have probably heard about doctors using an unproven vein-opening procedure on people with multiple sclerosis.  But they may not know what this story reveals – that state medical boards sometimes look the other way, either not doing anything or taking years to act if at all.  The story raises fundamental questions about evidence, costs (some patients required to pay $10,000 up front), insurance fraud and more.

No, health care watchdog journalism is not dead in Milwaukee.  And neither are 4,000-word stories.  Now that’s hope.


Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe: A Special Investigation • by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie • The Nation

Journalists Hertsgaard and Dowie admit up front that they will not weigh in on the dangers of cell phones; rather, their aim is to reveal the lengths to which “Big Wireless” has gone to obfuscate the science.

The story details hirings, firings, memos and, of course, industry-friendly research funding. If the tactics described sound familiar (Big Tobacco, anyone?), that’s because, the story says:

Central to keeping the scientific argument going is making it appear that not all scientists agree. Again like the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, the wireless industry has “war gamed” science, as a Motorola internal memo in 1994 phrased it. War-gaming science involves playing offense as well as defense: funding studies friendly to the industry while attacking studies that raise questions; placing industry-friendly experts on advisory bodies like the World Health Organization; and seeking to discredit scientists whose views depart from the industry’s.

You won’t find out if cell phones are dangerous by reading this, but, as the story says:

… that is precisely the point: We simply don’t know. 


Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

How some rural hospitals were used to score huge paydays • by Jim Axelrod • CBS Evening News

Kevin Lomangino

I’ve largely written off television health news — a wasteland of superficial puff pieces about the latest (usually questionable) “breakthroughs” interspersed with drug ads for every condition known to medical science. But this investigation by Jim Axelrod shows the power of TV journalism to expose waste in the health care system that affects all of us. More stories like this one might just entice me to tune in again.

The piece explains how investors from Miami-based Empower Group purchased Campbellton-Graceville hospital in Florida’s panhandle. The rural hospital was set to close in just a few days, but Empower kept the doors open in exchange for paying off the hospital’s debt and a monthly fee of $30,000. Behind the scenes, however, Empower was striking deals with lab companies across the country to send their tests to Campbellton-Graceville. Rural hospitals can bill insurance companies for these tests at a much higher rate than facilities in more populated areas.

The higher reimbursement is meant to help these struggling rural facilities stay afloat. But Empower saw that the difference in billing rates was a loophole that could be exploited. Some $120 million in tests were funneled through the hospital from other locations over the course of 14 months. Although the hospital board eventually wised up to the racket and stopped it, there was no way to contain the fallout, Axelrod explains.

“On one side, dozens of labs claimed the hospital owed them millions. On the other, the insurance companies said they’d been over-billed by millions. After more than half a century, the hospital closed its doors.”


Mary Chris Jaklevic | Reporter-Editor

The Last Resort • by Lindsay Gellman • Longreads

What makes Germany such a hotbed for clinics offering unproven therapies? Gellman explains how loosely regulated providers are allowed to thrive amid the country’s “deep-seated affection for unconventional treatments.”

Mary Chris Jaklevic

Her focus is cancer patients who have exhausted their nest eggs at the secretive Hallwang Clinic, which lures patients with spa-like facilities and online testimonials about shrunken tumors. She notes that at least two patients have been outlived by the testimonials they provided for the clinic’s Facebook page.

Gellman explores the evidence behind a breast cancer vaccine touted by the clinic, quotes former employees, and asks why German regulators are not doing more to protect the public.

Part of the answer may lie in her observation that the German National Tourist Board has in recent years reported an uptick in foreigners visiting Germany for health-related overnight stays.


Michael Joyce | Writer-Producer

Forced sterilization programs in California once harmed thousands – particularly Latinas • by Nicole L. Novak & Natalie Lira • The Conversation

Michael Joyce

When the shameful topic of eugenics arises, many Americans are inclined to direct their attention, and blame, elsewhere.

But co-authors Lira and Novak don’t blink as they remind us that from the 1920’s, and well into the 1950’s, nearly 60,000 people were sterilized in the U.S. by various eugenic programs that were justified in the name of “science.” About one-third of these sterilizations — of people labeled as somehow “unfit” — were in California, where Latino men were 23 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino men, and Latinas 59 percent more often than non-Latina women.

The rationale du jour we’re told was this: “politicians and state officials often described Mexicans (most Latinos in California at the time were of Mexican heritage) as inherently less intelligent, immoral, ‘hyperfertile,’ and criminally inclined.”

As the authors remind us that such sterilizations are still occurring in this country (albeit, much less frequently and conspicuously), I’m reminded of the popular aphorism of Harvard drop-out and (Latino) essayist George Santayana:

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it


Please Note: These stories have not been subject to our rigorous, 10-criteria systematic review for accuracy, balance, and completeness. Rather, they represent pieces of health care journalism and opinion writing that members of our staff found compelling and wanted to share with others.

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

You might also like

Comments (2)

We Welcome Comments. But please note: We will delete comments left by anyone who doesn’t leave an actual first and last name and an actual email address.

We will delete comments that include personal attacks, unfounded allegations, unverified facts, product pitches, or profanity. We will also end any thread of repetitive comments. Comments should primarily discuss the quality (or lack thereof) in journalism or other media messages about health and medicine. This is not intended to be a forum for definitive discussions about medicine or science. Nor is it a forum to share your personal story about a disease or treatment -- your comment must relate to media messages about health care. If your comment doesn't adhere to these policies, we won't post it. Questions? Please see more on our comments policy.

Barbara Duffy

April 2, 2018 at 5:35 am

Thank you, thank you for being out there and available to those who question what they see and read pertaining to healthcare. Capitalism is alive and well within an industry whose mission should be to first, protect the patient from harm.

Jann Bellamy

April 2, 2018 at 3:13 pm

I am a big fan of Health News Review, but think Ms. Adams doesn’t have the whole story. For a very different view of The Nation’s article on cell phone safety from a surgical oncologist, see “The Nation indulges in fear mongering about cell phones and cancer” on the Science-Based Medicine blog, https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-nation-indulges-in-some-particularly-egregious-fear-mongering-about-cell-phones-and-cancer/