December 30, 2015

2015's best health care journalism

Daily Briefing

Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

About a year ago, I tried to pull back the curtain on our Daily Briefing process. To explain how every day, our team runs ten or so news summaries, trying to highlight the most important stories and trends in health care. And how for every story we pick to include in our roundup, we've probably read nine others, scanning the New York Times, the Carroll County Times, and everything in between.

The numbers add up. I personally read about 50 health care stories on any given day and somewhere near 1,000 stories per month. And wonderful editors and writers like Josh Zeitlin and Sam Bernstein always flag the articles that I can't afford to miss.

All that to say: I bet I read as much health care journalism as anyone in the country this year.

Much of it was good. Some of it was great.

And a few stories were absolute standouts.

In a now-annual tradition, I'd like to share some of the articles, stories, and journalism that grabbed me over the course of 2015. You'll find that list starting below, filtered into loose categories.

And if you've clicked into this story from your email, thank you for making the Daily Briefing part of your routine. Readership exploded in the past few years, and the numbers are staggering. And the team has some incredible ideas heading into 2016.

(Although on a short personal note, this is the final story I'll be writing for the Daily Briefing, as I head off to POLITICO to author their daily Pulse. It's been a privilege to have so many smart, thoughtful readers—and to spend every day getting to write about such a fascinating industry.)

Our fragile lives

The lonely death of George Bell. Some pundits proclaimed that this New York Times article was the story of the year; others thought it was too long and over-written. But everyone agreed—N.R. Kleinfield's tale of one man's quiet life and death in New York City is intensely memorable.

Before I go. The sad passing of Paul Kalanithi, a young Stanford neurosurgeon, has stayed with me for months. His final essay will haunt you, too.

'Sabbath.' Like Kalanithi, physician Oliver Sacks authored several essays as his terminal cancer got worse. Unlike Kalanithi, Sacks was much older, in his eighties—and his essays were understandably tinged with less tragedy and more celebration. This was one of Sacks' final pieces, penned several weeks before he died.

The last day of her life. She was a brilliant scholar. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. So she decided to end her life. Robin Marantz Henig's fascinating look at the willful death of Sandy Bem.

Patient safety and accountability

When a patient's death is broadcast without permission. In January, Charles Ornstein spotlighted how reality TV shows were filming patients in New York City without consent. His story got them to stop.

The ugly civil war in American Medicine. Doctors are increasingly furious about “maintenance of certification” rules, and in a controversial Newsweek story, Kurt Eichenwald explains why.

The making of Dr. Oz. Writing at Vox, Julia Belluz pulled back the curtain on Oz: How a great doctor became an embarrassing quack.

How a medical device maker kept U.S. hospitals in the dark about deadly infections. Writing at the Los Angeles Times, Chad Terhune and Melody Petersen detailed how Olympus concealed the risk of how its scopes could spread bacteria—a problem that led to huge patient safety problems and a story that Terhune stayed on all year.

The Surgeon Scorecard. ProPublica unveiled an ambitious scorecard that aimed to track surgical performance, and the project was initially hailed as a great act of journalism. But many doctors were unhappy with the effort, and both Ben Davies at Forbes and Lisa Rosenbaum at NEJM authored strong rebuttals for why the scorecard was a mistake.

How big pharma gave America its heroin problem. I though this Dan McGraw story was outrageous: Providers were pushed to issue OxyContin prescriptions, which for many patients became a gateway drug.

Biotechies behaving badly

The Wall Street Journal's investigation of Theranos. John Carreyrou spent months unraveling the hype around Theranos, a heavily touted lab startup valued at $10 billion, and this first story was a shocker. The series was arguably the signature investigative journalism project in health care this year.

But were the stakes around investigating Theranos really that high? After Carreyrou's first story broke in October, we debated this on our Weekly Briefing podcast. (Our episode was ultimately selected by one critic as one of the top five health care podcast episodes of the year.)

You can listen to the show here or by clicking on the player below; the Theranos segment starts at 3:15.




My lunch with Shkreli: What we should learn from pharma's latest monster. Over the course of a few days in September, pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli became the most hated man in America. But in the middle of the furor, Matthew Herper's story on having lunch with Shkreli was a tiny gem of sanity—and a window into the humanity behind the villain.

Turing Pharma, Martin Shkreli and the magic of Twitter. One reason the Shkreli story exploded was because he was confronting reporters on Twitter—including John Carroll, a journalist who's spent years tracking the industry and Shkreli. I really enjoyed this FierceBiotech podcast with Carroll, as he walked through what it was like to be inside the eye of the storm.

Our genes, our destiny?

The mixed-up brothers of Bogota. How much of our lives are controlled by nature versus nurture? Susan Dominus found a real-world A/B test, after two sets of identical twins were mixed up at a hospital—and raised apart for 25 years. An unbelievable feature story that reads like a movie.

The genesis engine. CRISPR appears to be a revolutionary tool to edit our genes, and Amy Maxmen's story for WIRED plumbed the mind-blowing implications.

Payment transformation

Overkill. America is starting to deal with its health care cost conundrum, but we're still grappling with a care quandary: Our wasteful, inefficient health system. This Atul Gawande piece was essential reading.

The experts were wrong about the best places for better and cheaper health care. In an incredible interactive story for the New York Times, Margot Sanger-Katz and Kevin Quealy got readers to think differently about health care spending.

Affordable Care Act implementation

The short life and inevitable decline of the ACA's CO-OP program. There was some very good journalism around the collapse of the ACA's co-operative health plans. But the single best story was written by Adam Cancryn for SNL Financial, as he explained how and why the co-op program began to fail.

Doctors barred from discussing safety glitches in U.S.-funded software. Electronic health records can be billion-dollar boondoggles—but gag orders prevent hospitals and doctors from publicly griping, Darius Tahir reported in this piece for POLITICO.

Hello, justices? It’s reality calling. For nearly half the year, the existential threat of King v. Burwell hung over the industry—and Nick Bagley was an essential (and prescient) guide throughout the case. This New York Times op-ed urged the Supreme Court to rule against the plaintiffs, preserving the exchanges' tax subsidies.

The bill. Malcolm Gladwell seemingly reinvented himself this year as the nation's best health care book critic, authoring several brilliant reviews in the New Yorker. His critique of Steven Brill's health reform book was arguably better than the book.

Obamacare's Medicaid expansion is helping the uninsured—where it's allowed to. This useful, engaging Huffington Post visualization laid out the timeline for when states chose to adopt the ACA's Medicaid expansion, and the implications for residents. By Jeff Young, Nicky Forster, Hilary Fung, and Alissa Scheller.

When tragedy strikes

Don't blame it on depression. The Germanwings plane crash was a tragedy, and when searching for answers to explain the inexplicable, many people settled on a simple fact: The pilot who deliberately crashed the plane had previously been treated for depression. But psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky worried that this was the wrong conclusion, and in a piece for Slate, she urged readers to avoid stigmatizing mental illness.

Report from Paris. Charlotte Haug's matter-of-fact NEJM perspective was a tick-tock of how caregivers rushed into action after the city was hit by a massive terrorist attack in November.

Seeking truth behind a scandal

The strange case of Anna Stubblefield. A professor claimed that she could help a severely disabled man communicate with the outside world. I don't know if I have the words to describe what followed. This was probably the most horrifying story I read all year. It also was the most gripping. By Dan Engber.

I watched 12 hours of the Planned Parenthood sting videos. Here’s what I learned. The fight over Planned Parenthood became an enormous political battle this year. In her pieces for Vox, Sarah Kliff brought honesty and insight as the partisan rhetoric heated up.

Special consideration

Frakt and Carroll. There's a reason my co-hosts on the Weekly Briefing found a reason to name-check Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll nearly every week: They're so darn prolific, and always so good. Whether appearing at "The Upshot," the Incidental Economist, Aaron's award-winning YouTube series, or elsewhere, Frakt and Carroll shared incredible analysis and authored important and memorable stories this year. Here's my shortlist:

STAT News. This brand-new website devoted to life science reporting burst onto the scene in November and immediately became a must-read. (I wasn't sure how I was going to flag all of the individual articles I loved, but reader Greg Dworkin gave me a great suggestion: Just recognize the entire site.) The team boasts a plethora of riches: Reporters like David Nather and Dylan Scott skillfully cover the politics of health care; well-regarded experts like Ed Silverman, Sharon Begley, Carl Zimmer, and Ivan Oransky write authoritative columns; and a slew of proven journalists and up-and-coming reporters anchor the site, too. Worth your time.

More from today's Daily Briefing
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