Thursday, October 25, 2012

Battling a heartless system

Battling a heartless system

By: Sagar Atre, Research Intern-Healthcare, ProPublica, New York, NY.
M.S. Candidate, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University.

Recipient of the Bob Considine Foreign Correspondence Internship Scholarship of the Institute of International Journalism at Ohio University.

Healthcare reporting is sometimes like a doctor; hearing about death, trauma, pain, suffering, and all other frailties of human health that ail every living being. It makes you realize how hard a job medical professionals do every day. It tempers your carefree life with thoughts of being a human after all, it reminds you that you too, like each of your fellow human beings, are as liable to fall sick as anyone else.

But sometimes, there’s more to being a health reporter. Sometimes you hear about the mistakes a doctor makes and alters someone’s life, or sometimes, even carelessly destroys it. This carelessness is then often met with a callousness befitting a heartless man, and often, the heartbroken family has nothing to do but give up, for lack of money, for lack of resources to challenge a system that makes a lot of fatal mistakes, but does not always acknowledge them. During my time at ProPublica as an intern, I had the chance to meet Dr Martin Makary, a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon, and a whistleblower of sorts for his own field. When I first spoke with him, I asked him why he wrote this book in spite of being in the same field, his answer was simple, “Because today, some doctor can be careless, harm a patient and change their lives irreparably while getting away without a scratch, or at the most, by paying some money for it if the patient’s family can prove the hospital was responsible. I am not against mistakes, they are going to happen. What I am against is not acknowledging them, and not creating a culture of being righteous in a profession we equate with being God.”

I saw and read about a lot of past cases my colleague Marshall Allen worked on, some were chilling to read. One that particularly stood out was the case of Linda Carswell, whose husband suddenly died after a cardiac procedure in the hospital. But this was only the beginning, after protracted legal battles and many testimonies, she won some compensation. But the worst secret was yet to be revealed; Linda Carswell’s husband’s heart was not in his body. In a courtroom testimony, one of the pathologists reported that the hospital had retained the heart as legal evidence.

There are many other tales like these, where institutions do not follow their duties and instead become sites of harm. It is an exciting and uplifting thing to know that my work can help mitigate such social ills, can reduce the arrogance of institutions who are left unquestioned because they are too big to challenge. My project is in the healthcare sector, where we are investigating patient harm by involving patients and providers alike. The healthcare reporting team is trying to put together the large jigsaw puzzle and realize why patients are harmed in places where they go to feel better. In a time when healthcare is becoming unaffordable for many Americans, healthcare waste is responsible for $765 billion of taxpayer money. 
Cutting a large part of that would balance budgets for a long time, according to an Institute of Medicine report. However, the medical hierarchy is against this. In a system where surgeons rule and no one challenges them, reporting and action on this is unlikely to happen. However, at ProPublica, it is our job to reveal inconvenient truths.

One of the most exciting factors of working at ProPublica is the synergy of public information and novel technology. Their use of technology to get information to the public on a platter makes it the best journalism work I’ve ever seen. Coming from a country like India where politicians and the powerful are not accountable at all, it makes me ecstatic to see things like this emerge. When I see heretofore unavailable information which was inaccessible to them before, but now is at their fingertips for them to use, I realize now what joy my ProPublica colleagues feel when they file a story after months of painstaking research. They should be proud, they are changing people’s lives for the better. I am glad to be part of a team like this and share some of that pride, even if it’s only a little.

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