Health care journalist seeks out partnerships

Former New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, who became editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News last month, told a Penn State audience Thursday that she plans a lot of partnerships with U.S. news organizations on health care reporting.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit service covering health care policy, and its articles are free for use by publications, often major newspapers. “Journalism is storytelling with a purpose — to teach and to inform,” she said.

Rosenthal opened by telling journalism students, “Whatever anyone tells you, it is a great time to be journalists.”

Journalism is in a transitional time, and it is a “sandbox” with numerous tools to tell stories, she said. To illustrate, she read excerpts from two of her New York Times stories.

In “After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill from Doctor He Didn’t Know,” Rosenthal wrote about Peter Drier, a technology manager living in New York City. He was charged more than $100,000 for neck surgery by a neurosurgeon he didn’t recall meeting.

In the equally shocking story, “When the Hospital Fires the Bullet,” Rosenthal told the story of Alan Pean, who was shot in the chest while seeking mental help at the St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston.

The backstory of both stories, Rosenthal said, was that they came to her through social media. It was part of the crowdsourcing technique she used to ask people to submit responses on health care issues.

When Pean decided to let his story go public, she recalled, “It was a gift to me as a journalist.”

“Practicing this kind of sensitive journalism, you have to build trust,” she said. “People were really brave to be willing to share their tragic experience as teachable lessons.”

In her new position with Kaiser Health News, Rosenthal said, an example of partnership with other media is the collaboration she had with “This American Life” to create a podcast about Pean’s story.

Rosenthal worked as an emergency room physician for five years before becoming a journalist. She said her ER experience asking questions and listening to the patients translated into her expertise in health care reporting.

She also spent 11 years as foreign correspondent — six in Beijing and five in Rome — and witnessed different health care systems. Having experienced an overcharge in her medical bill from a local hospital in New Jersey, “My return to medical reporting is personal,” she said.

Min Xian is a Penn State journalism student.