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HMJ: Times my mind was blown

This blog post is a series of four posts about my experience in Pat Thomas’s Health and Medical Journalism graduate class this semester. 

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Maybe I should have known some of these before this semester. Honestly, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about medical and health issues before this semester. After this class, I can’t STOP.

1. This video

2. 1/3 of people over 60 are on five or more medications

3. If you went on a medication and something funny is going on with you, it’s probably because of the meds

4. Basically no one reports on local health stories

5. No citizens understand the ACA

6. Most reporters don’t understand the ACA

7. People like the ACA and hate Obamacare

8. More tests are not always good — PSA and mammograms, in some cases

9. We still don’t have a good, streamlined system for tracking medical records

10. You can ask your doctor lots of questions. Most people don’t ask any

11. There are awesome studies about the effectiveness of procedures. Sometimes, doctors don’t pay attention to these

12. Complication rates go way down the more times a doctor does an operation. You should always find a doctor that does your operation a lot

13. There’s a lot of money in medicine. Sometimes this takes precedent over what is best for the patient

14. Lots of people that go into hospitals become sick with something else (and sometimes die from) something they did not have when they came in

15. A doctor can lose certification in one state and keep practicing in another state

16. Hospitals get more money when they are unsafe. More procedures!

17. Hospitals don’t want the data that shows how they perform to be released

18. EVERYTHING in this book

HMJ: The myth of going with your gut

This blog post is a series of four posts about my experience in Pat Thomas’s Health and Medical Journalism graduate class this semester. 

 confusion

 

Making a few simple inquires into why a newsroom operates a certain way or why a reporter made a decision quickly results in the classic and unarguable defense of “I went with my gut.” As reporters, we often rely on our gut instincts to tell us which sources to trust. We might rely on our gut to tell us how to write a headline or which story our audience will find most helpful or most interesting. Back in the days of dead trees, our gut was all we had to tell us which story deserved A1 status. Now, we have data. Many newsrooms already use Chartbeat to help make decisions about where stories should be on the homepage. A/B testing is also becoming more popular in newsrooms. We don’t need to go with our guts anymore, yet we often still do. Maybe it’s tradition or maybe narcissism, who knows? Sometimes it works out. Sometimes — say when your gut tells you to hire someone you know for a job instead of sending out the posting and opening the position up to more diverse applicants — going with your gut doesn’t work out so well. Hearing reporters say they went with their guts makes me cringe. I always want to know what the data, THE ACTUAL EVIDENCE, says.

This semester, I’ve learned that doctors often have the same problems. Since the beginning of the profession, doctors have gone with their guts, relying on experiences as well as a small tugging somewhere in their stomach regions to tell them how to treat patients. Their guts and personal experience tell them lots of patients in the past have been helped by this procedure, so I should do it again. The problem with that is, per an earlier post, you have to look for something to see it. Your experience and your gut are biased.

The good news: we don’t have to play the gut game anymore. We have data. We have evidence. It’s called evidence-based medicine.

Just like with reporters, it’s easy to go with your gut instead of going with the actual evidence. It doesn’t take into consideration your experience, what you were taught in school, how your mentors did it, etc. But, data is good. We should use it and we should demand others use it too!

 

HMJ: Looking and seeing

This blog post is a series of four posts about my experience in Pat Thomas’s Health and Medical Journalism graduate class this semester. 

 

looking

 

On Tuesday, Nancy Gore Saravia, scientific director of Centro Internacional de Entrenamiento e Investigaciones Medicas in Cali, Colombia, came to speak at UGA for the Voices of the Vanguard lecture.

She detailed her research in Leishmania, a disease transmitted through sandfly bites, which essentially makes your face fall off. Side note: why is it that these researchers feel the need to show so many pictures?

Over many decades, Saravia’s team showed that most cases of the disease don’t actually make your face crumble off your, well, face. Often, infected populations will have pimple-looking legions or have no symptoms at all. The team was only able to show this after testing large groups of people to see if they had it. The results were controversial at first because others in the field hadn’t seen that.

Her team also showed the current treatment to be often ineffective, especially in children, and that infected peoples were likely to become infected again. Previously, the community had thought of the disease as similar to chickenpox — after you get it, you won’t get it again.

Again, others weren’t seeing that and the results were controversial.

But, her team was right. Once others actually looked for this, they saw it.

Saravia included lots of life lessons in her presentation. She told the audience to thank their mentors and reminded several times that “you make plans, then life happens.”

This lesson stuck with me most, though. You can’t see something without looking for it. A lot of medical stuff is the same way. How can you know what the end result of a surgery is if you don’t ask? You can’t.

Freshman year, I broke my ankle. I tried to wait it out and go to PT, but after a year, it still wasn’t back to normal and I got surgery to remove a bone piece that had become lodged in the joint. I had follow-up appointments, of course, but didn’t have contact with my doctor after the scar healed. Most surgeries are like this. It took probably a year to be able to run again comfortably and regularly. Even now, years later, my flexibility in that ankle is noticeably very different. My tree pose sucks on that side.

He has no idea about any of that though, and can’t tell other patients thinking of doing similar surgeries what the real outcomes are. He hasn’t called every few months to find out. Would that have been a good investment? I’m not sure, but it’s important to remember and think about that. If someone tells you something they think as fact, you should ask if they looked for it. If they haven’t, they can’t know. Proceed with caution.

HMJ: What you can learn about your doctor from Medicare data

This blog post is a series of four posts about my experience in Pat Thomas’s Health and Medical Journalism graduate class this semester. 

New data!

Bubble_Party

A couple of weeks ago, the Center for Medicare Services released the 2012 database, which details payments made to doctors, the amount of procedures and the rate for which doctors billed.

There’s a dashboard on the government website. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal also have dashboards.

 

How to use the data

1. Search for the best doctors in your area for your procedures.

When doctors do the same procedure frequently, their complication rates go down. They mess up less. Makes sense, right? Like mom always said, practice makes perfect.

If you need a procedure done, you are better off with a doctor that does that procedure all the time. Some physicians do a lot of different procedures, while others do the same thing over and over. Until now, information about how many procedures of a certain type a doctor did was not public. With this data, patients can get a glimpse.

Using The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal dashboards, you can find your doctor by zip code or city and see how many times they billed for a certain procedure. If you are more adventurous, use the data.cms.gov site to filter by zip code and procedure. The result will be the numbers for every doctor in your area.

 

2. Find the cost of your procedure.

The procedure-level data also include billing information. Prices for the same procedure can vary wildly — sometimes the doctor is charging more for no reason, other times the doctor may have sicker patients or be more of a specialist.

Using the New York Times dashboard (The Wall Street Journal doesn’t include average amount billed, only the average amount Medicare paid), find your city and procedure again to see what others in your area are billing or what you can expect to be billed.

 

What’s on the horizon

Big changes happening for me in the next couple of weeks:

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1. I graduate May 9 from The University of Georgia with High Honors as a journalism major and computer science minor. I was also recently awarded as one of the top one percent in Grady at the Presidential Honors Day Luncheon and as the 2014 winner of the George M. Abney award, which recognizes the graduating Grady senior who has achieved the most impressive record in the Honors Program. Leaving UGA is bittersweet, but I’m pleased that the relationship I helped forge between CS and journalism will continue.

2. I have accepted a job as a data reporter at U.S. News & World Report beginning at the end of June in my favorite city — Washington, DC. I’m convinced this is the perfect position for me and am so excited to see what the coming years will bring.

3. I’ll be launching my AP-Google Project at the end of May with a website. I hope to follow that with a book in the coming years. I have learned so much about the intersection of journalism and CS and can’t wait to share it.

4. In between the project launch and my start date, I’ll be traveling for a month with my fiancé and our families. If you want to see lots of Instagrams of French Fashion, holla.

TEDxUGA Talk: New feminism, the confidence gap and computer science

The video from my TED talk is live. I had so much fun working on this over the last year! Give it a watch.

Computer Science Ladies at Rails Girls

There’s nothing I love more than chatting with women just beginning to learn programing and computer science — a scary, but exciting time. Go forth and prosper, ladies!

Key takeaways:

  • Women have been involved in computer science since the beginning.
  • The field has a big gender disparity (obvs).
  • Confidence is key. We talked about stereotype threat, attribution theory and impostor syndrome.
  • What problems women may name when quitting computer science and how to work around those problem times.
  • Future reading, if you want to learn more.

View slides here.

When is news BREAKING NEWS?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what breaking news actually is. It started when my non-journalist roommates were complaining that they were alerted of Justin Bieber’s arrest by a news organization’s mobile application. The problem is that neither of them care about his arrest. Alerts when our audience doesn’t want them annoy users and may cause them to delete your mobile application. Starting too many of your tweets with “BREAKING:” ruins the strength of including the word. BREAKING is supposed to catch a reader’s eye in the feed. It’s supposed to be rare. If we overuse it, BREAKING becomes a “newspaper that cried wolf” type of problem. It won’t have as much impact when you actually need to use it.

So, is Justin Bieber’s arrest breaking news? Where should your news organization draw the line on mobile alerts and social media?

Here are some of the tweets about “breaking news” that came across my feed in the last 24 hours:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also, this one.

In all seriousness, that is A LOT of breaking news. Too much.

Which ones are really breaking news?

Here are some criteria to ask before using BREAKING:

1. The supermarket test: If someone in the supermarket says something to me about this event or asks me something about this event and I don’t know what they are talking about, should I be embarrassed? Put another way, is this story something normal people will be talking about in a major way?

Justin Bieber’s arrest: Maybe.

CVS stops selling cigarettes: No.

GM profits lower than expected: No.

2. Know your user test: Who is the audience that will care most about this news? Do those people make up half of my audience or more? Everyone’s definition of breaking news is different. Take your audience and their needs into consideration.

Justin Bieber’s arrest: 1. People who are fans of Justin Bieber. People who are interested in celebrity news. 2. For TMZ, yes. For Huff Post Celeb, yes. For The New York Times, no.

CVS stops selling cigarettes: 1. People who smoke. Anyone interested in health. 2. AJC: no. A health niche publication, yes.

GM profits lower than expected: 1. People with stock in GM. People interested in financial market. Investors. 2. WSJ, yes.

3. Actionability test: Does this news require my readers to take a specific action? Otherwise, if my readers gets this news tomorrow instead of right now, will they be harmed?

Justin Bieber’s arrest: No.

CVS stops selling cigarettes: No. Any actions required are far off.

GM profits lower than expected: Maybe, may require movement in stock market.

Results: If the results of your test are 2/3 or higher, it is breaking news. Otherwise, it is not breaking news.

Justin Bieber’s arrest: Maybe. TMZ, yes. NYT, no. No. = If you are TMZ or a Twitter account devoted to celebrity news, this is breaking news. For every other publication, this is not breaking news.

CVS stops selling cigarettes: No. AJC, no. Health, yes. No. = Nope, not breaking news.

GM profits lower than expected: No. WSJ, yes. Maybe. = For WSJ, this is breaking news. If your publication does not cater to investors, this is not breaking news.

Do you think this is a good metric? Let me know on Twitter if you have your own suggestions. 

One easy thing you can do to help save journalism: Stop the math bashin’

During the Online News Association conference this year in my home state of Georgia, the ONA leadership team asked me to speak as part of a panel by AP-Google scholars. I decided to use my seven-minute pulpit for one massive rant against something that has resulted in complications for me in many sections of my professional life, including job prospects, class scheduling and my research on women in computing for the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship.

Journalists hate math. It’s a common myth and one that I hear often. I’ve heard it from journalism students when I suggest to them they learn a little coding: “That’s cool for you, but I don’t think I could do that. I’ve always been bad at math.” I’ve heard it from top investigative reporters even: “I leave the number-crunching to others. I went into journalism because I hated math!” This is usually followed by a laugh.

Well, guess what? I’m not laughing, people.

The belief that journalists hate math is part of a larger over-arching belief in education that is cemented early on. It’s part of the “hidden curriculum” — everything you learn in school about culture, society and your own abilities that isn’t part of science, language arts, math or history. We are taught that each of our brains are divided right down the middle. The left side is everything analytical. The right side is everything creative. Also, EVERYONE has a dominant side. This notion of the dominant side will then go on to completely shape how you think about your own abilities, your confidence in your skill set and your career path.

The left side might as well be blue and the right side might as well be pink. Girls are often praised for their creativity or writing ability. Boys are more often praised for their abilities in science and math. As a result, they are more confident, enjoy those subjects more, work harder in those subjects and surpass their peers over many years.

Even if you have high test scores in both math and language arts as a child, a teacher, a parent or a family member will pick a side for you on this impossible to cross fence. And there you go. Might as well write your future in stone at age eight.

Most journalists grew up as “right brain” people. Even if a journalist was fine at math early on, all the confidence disparity and reinforcement pushes that journalist to believe she couldn’t do a calculus problem to save her life by the time she enters college.

If you’d like to see the slides that go along with this rant, they are below.

This left brain, right brain nonsense isn’t good for journalists. Why?

1. Data journalism and code journalism are becoming increasingly important. Because of the myth that journalists are bad at math, incoming journalists are scared out of trying anything new in these areas because of a fear that they will not be successful. How could they? They’ve always been “word people.” Several studies in computer science show confidence is actually a better predictor for if a woman will stay in the major than her ability in computer science. Confidence matters.

2. It hurts our credibility. You wouldn’t want an accountant who claims to be bad at math doing your taxes. In that same vein, why would I trust a profession that widely claims that its members went into said profession because THEY HATE MATH to perform mathematical operations (data journalism) and then use the results of those operations to try and change my belief about something.

3. It adds an untouchable, unicorn-quality to journalists doing both coding and journalism. The barriers make gaining these qualifications more difficult. They also make it very difficult to find a job using both skills because you don’t fit into a coder box or a writer box. There is no unicorn box and usually the more profitable coding skills win.

This right brain, left brain dichotomy doesn’t make sense in journalism or in other contexts. To be good at anything, you need to use analytical skills AND creativity.

In music, a performer must have analytics to play through scales, memorize keys and calculate rhythms. Reading or writing music is analytical. A great performer must also be creative in her movements, in how her bow glides over the strings, in the volume she plays.

The same is true in sports. Football players need to know the drills and the movements of other players, but they also need to be creative and to improvise on the field.

A successful journalist needs both the analytical and the creative too. Traditionally, journalism has been thought of as more of a “right brain” skill. Most journalists would probably admit they enjoyed writing over math in school, but journalism is highly analytical (read: science-y).

Let’s look at the scientific method and the way we report our stories.

Almost the same. And look what else this process resembles:

 

Journalists are more like the “math folk” than we care to admit.

Conclusion: realize you need both the analytical and the creative to be good at anything, especially journalism, and stop saying you hate math. Seriously, stop it. Stop it. I beg you.