The 2021 Stephen Barr Winner shares what went into reporting his award-winning piece.
By Megan Smalley
Sometimes the best story ideas come from a series of unrelated interviews and research. That was certainly the case for Rich Daly, former senior editor of hfm magazine, who wrote “Where Did Our Sickest Patients Go? How Missed Care Will Cost Providers in 2021” for the trade publication in late 2020 and ultimately received ASBPE’s Stephen Barr Award for his work.
The American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) has presented the 18th annual Stephen Barr Award, the highest honor in the organization’s Azbee awards competition, to Daly this year. His article appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of the magazine, a publication produced by the Healthcare Finance Management Association (HFMA). The hfm piece explained why there was likely to be an unexpected influx of patients after the pandemic ended.
The award to Daly came at the conclusion of the B2B organization’s national awards presentation May 13, which took place online. One judge of the Barr Award, which comes with a $500 prize, says Daly’s cover story, “took an important and timely topic and explored and explained it in simple language based on solid reporting,” using “a good mix of numbers, telling anecdotes and useful insights.”
Daly spent many hours researching the topic, interviewing professionals and gathering data to tell the real story. The result was an award-winning feature, which has helped shed light on a concerning topic for many in the healthcare industry. Daly provides details on what went into reporting “Where Did Our Sickest Patients Go? How Missed Care Will Cost Providers in 2021” in 2020 with ASBPE.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “Where Did Our Sickest Patients Go?”
A: It came from interviews. It’s one of those things that was brought up as a side issue. I was talking to health systems and insurers and other people in the health care sector about what was moving, what was significant. During those [interviews], a few of them mentioned in passing, ‘Yeah, we don’t know where things are going with people who aren’t showing up.’ The loss of patient volumes was a big issue in the pandemic. Where did these patients go?
Sometimes, people would bring the topic up at the end of an interview after I asked, ‘Anything else?’ That was helpful… It got me thinking, ‘What other sort of pandemic effects are happening that people aren’t talking about?’ I talked to my editorial director about it and said, ‘This is something that’s coming and will be a big deal. I don’t know how big it will be, but I think it’s worth looking into.’ He agreed.
Q: How long did reporting take on this feature?
A: Once I got the go-ahead to pursue it as the cover story, I did a couple of months of work on it. The approach was just, ‘OK, is this a real issue? Is it an issue nationally? Is it just affecting some people, or is the issue widespread?’ Trying to understand that was one of the challenges and putting numbers to that. Once I had some numbers and projections on patient numbers, it was about delving down into which categories are most effective. Then you move down patient acuity chain from emergency events down all the way to chronic disease management and screenings broadly. Once we had a handle on that, I started contacting people most focused on patient categories to see what they were seeing happening and what they were expecting.
A lot of what I was writing about are different payment models and who has financial risk. Traditionally it’s insurers—either the employer providing it or commercial insurance company or at the federal level Medicare and Medicaid. So, it was about talking to those people who were paying to find out.
Q: Were sources pretty open and willing to talk to you about this issue?
A: The main thing was people wouldn’t talk to me because they didn’t know how to answer. A lot of organizations and people said that. But there were some that were very zoomed in on it, but even they said, ‘We don’t know. We have no idea at this point. We can’t put numbers to anything, and we can just talk anecdotally.’ Then there were those that did have numbers. One source is a company that manages revenue cycles for hospitals and health care systems. They have software they provide to these hospitals and health systems that tracks all the revenue and bills they send out and things not paid for. They were able to provide me data they could track over time, such as the number of patients you normally expect to come in with a heart attack and how that number might have fallen this week and next week. They could give specific condition numbers. Even beyond that, things like screenings and treatments, people also stopped coming for that.
Q: What was your audience’s reception to the feature?
A: I heard some follow-up interviews and interactions from industry folks. People would ask me for more information about it. One CFO told me he printed and passed out the story to his executive leadership team at his health system. He wanted them to know more about the issue because they weren’t talking enough about it.
Q: What tips would you offer to ASBPE members on how to know when you have a good story? And, once you have that good story, how do you get buy-in from your team to pursue it?
A: As far as seeing if something is real, in any beat, you’re going to have trusted sources that you have developed. It’s a good idea to bounce things off of them. Use sources as a sounding board for what you’re covering. As for buy-in, that can be a challenge, but I think it’s one of those things. You have a to-do folder, and you just don’t always get to everything in there. You get swamped, and there are a million things to cover. So, you have to prioritize—what’s in that to-do folder that is a priority? Maybe do one interview per week on that project, collect more data and dump it in there to build it over time. It may take weeks or months, but you eventually get something you can go to your editor or director and say, ‘Ok, I have compiled all of this, and this is why it’s impressive. Where can we fit it editorially?’ When you have something you’ve put your teeth into, it’s hard for leaders of publications to resist that when you show them it’s formed and real.
The winner of the Stephen Barr Award—the only Azbee honor presented to an individual journalist rather than a news organization—is selected by a panel of judges from among the overall work submitted each year. The journalism produced by the winner represents the “best-in-show” among the top feature-writing or investigative reporting categories: work that displays the qualities of inventiveness in the reporting approach; insight and balance in the presentation of a complex subject; depth of investigation; and impact among the community of readers.
Those qualities are among those exemplified by Stephen Barr, a perennial Azbee Award-winner in his role as a senior contributing editor of CFO magazine. Barr died in 2002 at age 43. The award was endowed by Barr’s family and is administered through the ASBPE Foundation.