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Covering hospital finances: Challenges & opportunities

Now is a great time to begin covering hospital finances.

Hospitals are 30 percent of U.S health care spending. And given the size of the federal deficit, hospitals will almost certainly face tough times ahead (though their longterm growth is a good bet).

All roads to a balanced budget go through Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare especially took a big whack in 1997 when the budget was last put in balance.

Other issues to keep in mind on the hospital beat are:

Mercy Health Satish Chandraprakasam MD

Dr. Satish Chandraprakasam talks with a patient at the JFK Clinic in St. Louis. Photo: Mercy Health

  • Never rely on documents alone for a story. Interview! A big gain or loss usually has many factors. Use the documents here to inform the reporting and use reporting to illuminate these documents.
  • Try to avoid numbers only stories. Find people who are affected. The ultimate point is how finances are affecting patients and their caregivers.
  • Hospital PR folks are not going to be much help on difficult stories. But getting information from the documents above may compel PR reps to release more information.
  • Don’t try to figure out audited financial statements by yourself, especially in the beginning. It’s a recipe for failure. Obtain the documents and find independent academic experts who can review them and teach you what the best questions are. They can also be quoted.
  • Use the power of your peers. Consider joining the Association of Health Care Journalists, the nation’s leading group of health reporters. AHCJ has strict rules on not taking money from the industries that health reporters cover. The group’s list serv can pick the brains of 1,100 journalists on deadline. AHCJ also offers tip sheets and conference sessions on hospital finances that can deepen your reporting. It’s the quickest, most cost effective support out there.

About the Author

Karl Stark is currently the health & science editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has worked as The Inquirer's pharmaceuticals reporter, national/foreign editor, deputy editor of science and medicine, and covered health care extensively as a business reporter. He has won many awards for his investigative work, including the National Press Club's Consumer Story of the Year. His work on a Pennsylvania-based health system triggered a criminal probe that resulted in plea bargains by top managers for misusing restricted medical endowment funds. He is the vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and was one of four authors of the group's "Covering the Quality of Health Care - A Resource Guide for Journalists."

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