Charles Ornstein has uncovered scandals just by analyzing data: massive Medicare fraud, unlicensed doctors seeing patients and networks of doctors who entrap patients in vicious cycles of bad treatment.
“There’s a whole lot we can learn about the health care system just by looking at outliers,” said Ornstein, a 1996 College graduate and senior reporter at ProPublica, at the Colonial Penn Auditorium on Friday.
Nurses, clinicians and physicians all filled the Colonial Penn Center Auditorium to hear Ornstein’s seminar about the power of outliers in getting us to ask important questions.
Ornstein said finding statistical outliers has helped him pinpoint grievous mistakes or errors in the health care system and much of his success, including his Pulitzer Prize, has come from scrutinizing clinician and hospital outliers.
An emphasis on what Ornstein said what he calls “accountability journalism” made ProPublica the first online publication to win a Pulitzer in 2010.
Tools like Prescriber Checkup and Treatment Tracker, available on ProPublica’s website, help the members of the public look up their doctors and find information such as the different drugs they prescribe, Ornstein explained.
“We saw that doctors don’t know what they’re prescribing in relation to their peers,” he added.
Other data analysis helped uncover lapses in policies at institutions like Stanford, The University of California San Francisco and even Penn, he said. ProPublica found that even though these institutions had really tough policies on doctors getting payments from pharmaceutical companies, their doctors were still receiving up to $40,000 from these companies from, for example, giving speeches at companies.
“These institutions had a policy that was entirely based on trust instead of one that was based on trust and verification,” Ornstein said. “I think now [institutions] realize they have a role in ensuring that their faculty follow the rules.”
The centrality of data to Ornstein’s work has allowed him to make connections not only about doctors and how they interact with their patients but also about lapses in Medicare policies and procedures.
“Why is Medicare not looking at its own data?” Ornstein joked as he described a network of incompetent doctors referring patients to one another. “What you end up having is patients being ping-ponged around bad doctors.”
Ornstein said he believes projects like ProPublica’s databases can help revolutionize the relationship between the public and journalists.
“We want people to tell their own story,” he said. “Journalism has to move from a place where we ask people to trust [journalists] to a place where people have access to what’s behind our work.”