A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: TV public service, Dateline NBC

By Quill

Americans and the American health-care industry find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. People can’t keep up with the astronomical costs as the rising elderly population, the latest technology and ethical issues challenge the healthcare industry.

Dateline NBC knew that this stressed system affected, or would soon affect, all their viewers. The team pursued “Critical Condition,” giving the public a look at the failures of the current system and the possible solutions the future holds.

“The challenge was trying to tell this story in a way that would be compelling and still address the many issues in the health-care crisis such as end-of-life issues, Medicare, insurance costs, the uninsured and the cost of technology,” said NBC News Producer Soraya Gage. “We had to find personal stories that illuminated the larger issues.”

The team followed patients at Staten Island University Hospital, where, like so many hospitals, all are treated and prices soar.

“There were several difficult aspects of the story,” said Gage. “The first was trying to convince a hospital to let us get inside and explore the story. There was a great deal of reluctance on the part of hospitals to trust the media to do a fair story, since so much of hospital coverage is negative.”

Gage and the team also struggled to find individuals whose cases represented the health-care system’s larger issues.

“We spent days and nights sitting in the emergency room waiting for stories to develop,” said Gage. “And then, it was difficult to convince patients, who were at vulnerable moments in their lives, to cooperate with us.”

Dateline NBC found Paul Esposito, an uninsured man severely injured in a ferryboat accident that left 11 dead, and his father Mike, who wondered how to pay the medical bills.

Brokaw (off-screen): A few weeks after the crash, Paul has endured five major surgeries. After the amputation, doctors cleaned out the metal and debris. Paul needed skin grafts on the ends of his legs so that he could one day support himself on artificial limbs. And even though he could still, in his mind, feel his feet.

Pail Esposito: I can feel my big toe being squeezed.

Brokaw (off-screen): … he had trouble looking at the place where his legs once were.

Brokaw (off-screen): If Paul’s biggest worry was whether he would ever walk again, his father’s concern was how to pay for the extensive medical treatment Paul would need for that to happen.

Brokaw (on-screen): When did it occur to you that this was going to cost a lot of money?

Mike Esposito: I would say after I found out what his injuries were. “What am I supposed to do now for this kid? He’s got no insurance.” And I immediately thought, “I’m going to have to sell the house.”

“This is reporting elevated to the kind of storytelling that only long-form video documentary can do so well,” said the judges. “We forget that we are watching ‘news.’ ”