SLADE, Ky. -- Kentucky journalists interested in covering health got plenty of information and hopefully some inspiration in November 2016 at "Covering Health: A News Workshop" at Natural Bridge State Resort Park.

The workshop was presented by the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which funds the institute to produce Kentucky Health News.

Jennifer P. Brown, former editor of the Kentucky New Era,
discussed how a small daily newspaper can cover health topics.
Journalists heard a battery of reasons for covering health, and how to find and use local health data. They were urged to overcome reluctance to report bad news, and to publish special newspaper sections on health.

Institute Director Al Cross told the journalists that covering health is important because it is the most important issue facing the state, "and probably your community." He cited the state's dismal health statistics, including: No. 1 in cancer deaths, lung-cancer deaths, deaths related to smoking, heart disease, hepatitis C, overuse of antibiotics and preventable hospitalizations ."They take care of us and then we don’t take care of ourselves," Cross said.

He noted other poor rankings: Second in smoking, heart attacks, high cholesterol, poor physical health days, and insufficient sleep; third in percentage of deaths from drug overdoses, fourth in diabetes, physical inactivity and poor mental-health days; fifth in adult obesity, sixth in stroke and sixth in hypertension, or high blood pressure (one of 2 states where the rate rose last year).

Cross said the state's poor health status hurts all Kentuckians, through higher insurance premiums, state taxes that pay for Medicaid, jobs that don’t come (or leave) due to high health costs and drug use in the workforce. He said that if Kentucky could reduce its No. 1 health problem, our high rate of smoking (26.5 percent), just to the recent U.S. average (18 percent), we would save $1.7 billion on health care the next year, with the average Kentuckian saving $400.

Melissa Patrick, senior reporter for Kentucky Health News, showed the journalists how to gather and use local health data. She said the foundation's site "is just the best one-stop shop for information."

Cross said the annual County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin provide an easy rundown of a county's health status, but many newspapers have never reported them, apparently reluctant to go out of their way to report information that reflects poorly on the community. "The worse your health ranking, the less likely you are to read about it in your local newspaper," he said. "The better your ranking is, the more likely you are to read about it."

He said that pattern didn't hold true in 2014, but recurred in 2015, albeit with a smaller sample. He said the ratings don't change much from year to year, so newspapers are less likely to report them, but should do so every year because of the impportance of community health.

Cross also urged the journalists to report the ratings of Medicaid managed-care companies, since Medicaid members can change their MCO through Dec. 16; and to follow county health boards, which under state law have responsibility for their county's health. For a copy of his PowerPoint presentation, click here.

Covering a local hospital can be difficult if it is privately owned, but if it is charitable, its report to the Internal Revenue Service is a public document that can provide useful information, said Jennifer P. Brown, former editor and opinion editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville.

Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, spoke about her paper's success with special sections on health, which she said she always includes when publishing a sample-copy edition that is mailed to every postal address in the county. "It's the easiest sale," she said. "The wonderful thing about a health section is, it can be as much work or as little work as needed," because Kentucky Health News and other sources have plenty of stories to go between the ads. But she said every story needs a call to action for readers who think, "This resonates with me; now what do I do?"

The workshop also included sessions on smoking, cancer, obesity, vaccinations, drugs and syringe exchanges, the need to consider the health effects of government and institutuional policies, add a luncheon keynote speech by Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. A story on Ingram appears below; reports on other sessions and/or their PowerPoint presentations will be posted here soon.

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