Reporter learns about health topics

Register reporter Vickie Moss attended Health Journalism 2024 in NYC to learn about health care journalism. She heard sessions from experts in the health and news industry, including CDC Director Mandy Cohen.

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June 10, 2024 - 2:14 PM

Register reporter Vickie Moss attended the Health Journalism 2024 conference in New York City this weekend. Pictured from left are Kansas/Missouri Fellows Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga with Kansas News Service and KCUR, Elisabeth Elustin with The Kansas City Defender, Jennifer Sykes with Health Forward Foundation, Moss and Suzanne King with The Beacon in Kansas City. Courtesy photo

NEW YORK CITY — As a reporter for the Iola Register, I attended Health Journalism 2024, a conference by the Association of Health Care Journalists last week in NYC. I was part of a Kansas/Missouri Fellowship sponsored by Health Forward Foundation of Kansas City.

Over the course of three days, I attended seminars on a variety of healthcare topics, including children’s mental health, medical stigma, medical debt, health impacts of incarceration and climate change.

Friday’s keynote speech, “Restoring confidence in public health,” featured Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control, and Ashwin Vasan, commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They talked about lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2019, life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped by two years. It’s a dramatic reversal, Vasan said, noting that life expectancy had expanded by 30 years over the past century. The decrease is attributed not just to the COVID pandemic but also to substance use and mental health issues. The pandemic exposed health dangers for vulnerable populations and weaknesses in health reporting data, he said. 

Building back trust takes time, Cohen said. She led North Carolina’s public health department during the pandemic and prior to being named CDC director. Her priorities for the CDC include increased transparency and improvements in operations, specifically using data, increasing laboratory capability and innovation, hiring talented people and connecting with states, health delivery systems and the private sector. 

“When public health is working, it’s invisible,” she said.

She also discussed recent outbreaks of avian flu, particularly in the dairy industry. She noted avian flu is much different from COVID because health experts “have been studying and preparing for decades.” Diagnostic tests and treatments are readily available. The risk of contracting avian flu is low for most people, as it has never spread from human to human.

“It’s very new for the dairy industry but not for public health or for agriculture,” she said. 

The CDC is using some of the tools developed during COVID to address avian flu, such as improved data collection, wastewater infrastructure and genetic sequencing for viruses. 

Register reporter Vickie Moss attended Health Journalism 2024 to learn about health care topics and trends. Courtesy photo

THE MOST  impactful session was “Nuances of reporting on people with disabilities.”

A panel of journalists who have disabilities offered their perspective on how to better approach reporting, both regarding articles about people who have disabilities and including more voices from those who have disabilities in everyday work. It’s important to take time to listen to those who have disabilities and discuss how they prefer to be identified, the panel members said.

The session affected me in a profound way. It helped to hear directly from reporters who have disabilities about the ways they want to be represented.

EXPERTS in the healthcare and news reporting industries — including researchers and professors from Harvard and Columbia, the director of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, reporters from KFF Health News and other leading news outlets, and advocacy organizations — presented at the conference.

The sessions I found especially helpful included:

Can anybody stop syphilis’ rising tide? 

Syphilis was nearly eradicated in 2000 but the number of cases have exploded since 2015, particularly among women of child-bearing age. Newborns are especially at risk of in-utero infection. Syphilis is easy to treat but challenges include the high cost and shortage of medication, inadequate public health funding, less testing and stigma surrounding sexually-transmitted infections. 

Reporting on the growing crisis of long-term care

Lori Smetanka, an advocate with the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, explained different care models, regulations and funding for long-term care. She noted every country is struggling with the challenges of an aging population “and none are doing it well except The Netherlands.” By 2050, the population of Americans 65 and older is projected to increase by more than 50% to 86 million. Smetanka talked about a shortage of home health and nursing home workers, noting poor pay with few benefits; a lack of respect, safety and training for workers; and a high workload. She encouraged reporters to “follow the money” and connect with ombudsmen and volunteers. 

Trauma, experience and the developing brain

Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience from Harvard, discussed the effects of genetics and experience on early brain development. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical, but many are at risk from traumatic environments such as war, malnutrition, abuse, neglect, infection and environmental toxins. Nelson shared results of a 20-year study on children who were abandoned at an orphanage in Romania; those who were placed in foster care before age 2 had better outcomes than those who remained in an institutional setting. 

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