Propublica Investigation- Omniscan & General Electric

Posted: February 15, 2011 by Joanne Goodall in #3 Propublica

When glancing through the Propublica’s section for their investigations, my eyes stopped at the word “Omniscan”. Curious, I read the little summary that followed the headline, “Omniscan: Specter of MRI Disease Haunts General Electric”. It briefly introduced what Omniscan is and why GE is linked with the chemical, but not much of a background.

I clicked on it to read further, not only because I was interested in what this multi-billion corporation has to do with a potentially fatal disease, but also because I have family members and friends who has had MRI scans before. Also, I am really interested in investigative journalism concerning corporations, greed, money, and heart-felt stories from victims of crime. Thinking this would be a good investigation to read and write a response to for Reporting 2.0, I pressed on ward.

However, Propublica didn’t deliver any of this and I was actually disappointed. After clicking the link to the main page for the investigation on Omniscan, I was face to face with a really boring page layout. It was a screen full of headlines, on both the right and left hand sides, and listed on the bottom of the one photo I could see. The photo was a generic picture of someone standing by an MRI scanner. Not very interesting, but the headlines sounded intriguing so I continued. Here’s what I learned from after reading four articles:

Omniscan, owned by General Electric, is a potentially fatal agent used to help aid doctors with MRI scans. The contrast agent is a dye-like substance and is injected into patients to help make MRI images more distinct. Omniscan is partially made by the toxic chemical gadolinium. If injected into patients with kidney problems, gadolinium cannot be properly flushed out of the body, therefore, creating further health problems. It can cause the rare disease called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, NSF, which debilitates the patients’ legs by causing lesions and swelling of the skin tissue.

After doctors and researchers discovered the link, they reported their findings to both GE and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA ordered the company to put black warning labels on their packaging to warn patients and doctors of NSF. However, GE told the FDA to blanket Omniscan with other contrast agents (some made by Bayer) even though it is more harmful.

Patients who got NSF from Omniscan and families who are now picking up the pieces after their family member died from the disease have been suing contrast agent companies, especially GE, for ignoring the risks since 2006. Over 400 lawsuits have been filed in the US alone, with over half of them against GE. Lawsuits have also been filed in Denmark and Austria.

When looking at the articles dedicated to the investigation of Omniscan produced by GE and its link to the disease NSF, I was left to wonder why Propublica didn’t probe further into Bayer and the other companies. Sure, in their investigation they discovered that these companies were more willing to compensate the patients but they were still in the wrong by issuing a harmful agent. I agree with Jeff DeMarris, the representative for GE Healthcare, who commented on two of the four articles I read when he said that the investigation was one sided, put the blame for NSF heavily onto Omniscan and barely any mention of Bayer’s contrast agent, Magnevist, and accusing Propublica’s investigative journalist who wrote the articles, Jeff Gerth, for portraying the facts inaccurately and distorting the companies’ relationship with its patients and their true concern for the disease and the welfare of those who used their agent. I was pleased with his comment because he let himself be known (didn’t log anonymously), he supported his thesis with arguments and links to the GE website, and his message was clear. I wouldn’t take everything he said with face value but I appreciate that Propublica published his letter and that there was a mature argument- not just some random person sitting at their computer, bored, wanting to stir up something on a comment board.

I also didn’t like Propublica’s lack of personalizing the investigation. They could have used a section of their website to display more photos of patients with NSF, their stories of how they had an MRI for one health problem, only to come out of it with another, and how they live their lives now with the disease. The only personal story that I watched was a five minute video of a woman telling her story. I enjoyed the multi-media aspect of the Omniscan investigation but I found the video was too short, it focused the first two minutes on her slideshow and not on her body language or her facial expressions, she didn’t show photos of her condition, nor was there anything to suggest how different her life changed after the disease developed. I would have liked to have seen more of this instead of a rant. I think it would have been more effective because people on the Internet would rather watch a video rather than read four one-thousand word articles.

I would have also liked to see more photos- any photos. I only seen one or two photos on each article that I read. They were over one-thousand words each and very boring to try and follow. It was a white page surrounded by words all the way down when I scrolled past the top photos. I think if Propublica wants to be a more effective online investigative journalism website, they did more multi-media elements. More videos, podcasts, and photos will work. Without them, I found myself distracted with MSN, Facebook, and my cell phone.

However, their content was interesting and I found that I had learned a lot about Omniscan. I think the internet needs more investigative journalism and less blog sites accusing celebrities of cheating on each other. Though I found the content really interesting, I thought the links (words highlighted in blue) were distracting as well. I wanted to press them and read about them and not what I was originally reading about- it was like a vicious cycle of picking and choosing links and articles. Some of the links were not for the Propublica website, but for the GE statements, doctor’s statements, FDA information, etc. Though very informative and nice to have as background information, I didn’t like how it broke my concentration and flow of reading.

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