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This week, BI deputy executive editor Olivia Oran interviewed healthcare correspondent Lydia Ramsey. Ramsey has been busy speaking to frontline hospital workers about their struggles caring for coronavirus patients in New York City.
Business Insider healthcare correspondent Lydia Ramsey has spent the majority of her career writing about the drug industry, and more recently, how technology is changing the way that people get healthcare.
She’s spent the last month chasing down doctors, nurses and hospital administrators to give readers a stark picture of what life is like right now inside hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Lydia’s stories include a look at how doctors across NYC are dealing with the harrowing reality of caring for coronavirus patients as equipment runs short, how hospitals are at risk of running out of drugs used when patients are on ventilators, and how US healthcare workers aren’t getting tested for the virus.
Here’s her conversation with deputy executive editor Olivia Oran.
Olivia Oran: Tell me a bit about your background and how you found yourself covering the coronavirus pandemic.
Lydia Ramsey: I’ve been with Business Insider since June 2015, covering the healthcare industry, starting with the drug industry. That year, the biggest stories were all about Martin Shkreli and price gouging and Theranos, which gave me a taste of the insanely complicated world of diagnostic testing.
More recently, I’ve been staying on top of the new ways people are getting healthcare. That is, whether they were doing it through online visits, at their pharmacy, via their health insurer, through new primary care models, or in places that weren’t within the four walls of the hospital.
I’d also been getting deep into the business of health insurers, especially a new crop of startups vying for the booming Medicare Advantage market.
I hadn’t had a byline about coronavirus to my name until March 3.
The week before, I was out on vacation. Passing through the airport as I headed home, I saw headlines about the markets crashing. It took me until that Friday, February 28 to realize that the virus was about to upend life as we knew it here in the US.
From there, I started speaking with folks about the potential impact on the US health system. I’d been speaking with hospitals and health systems throughout the years, but the tone of these conversations were a lot different. Quickly, I learned how seriously they were taking it, and what we were at risk of running out of right away, from space, to staff, to essential supplies — issues they’re still facing.
Oran: What’s an average day for you right now?
Ramsey: When I first wake up, I make a point to go about a morning routine I call my “commute.” I get our office (kitchen table) set up with my computer, notebook and headphones.
I live in a one-bedroom apartment, which I share with my husband and 70-pound goldendoodle, Junior. I spend my day writing or on the phone, either at the kitchen table or in the bedroom if my husband is also on a call.
During the day, I speak with healthcare workers and administrators to get a sense of what’s going on inside hospitals. The emergency room at one hospital in Manhattan might look totally different from the ER or floor of admitted patients in a hospital in Brooklyn or Queens. Hospitals are also getting creative in how they can build additional space for patients, like setting up intensive-care units in operating rooms, or using places like the lobby of the hospital for additional beds.
I’ve mainly been focused on what’s going on here in NYC and the surrounding metro area. But as the virus spreads, I’ve been spending more time speaking with doctors and nurses based elsewhere to hear what they’re seeing. Some are still early on — their hospitals haven’t seen many cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Others have been attending to patients for weeks. It’s taught me a lot about the prognosis of the disease and what it can look like in its most serious forms.
I now have a built-in afternoon break around 2:30. That’s when Junior decides it’s time to go for a walk. It’s by far my favorite addition to the work-from home schedule. When I’m not on the phone, I’m busy writing, brainstorming ideas, chatting with other reporters and editors around the newsroom to see what they’re hearing and where we might be able to team up.
I usually end my day around 6, at which point I clear off the kitchen table for dinner, signalling the end of the day. I’ll often have a call or two in the evening with sources, but I still try to keep my days separate from my nights.
Oran: You talk to a lot of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals that are in the trenches. Many of them are at risk of losing their jobs if they reveal to you what’s actually going on in the hospitals. How do you get them to trust you? And how do you manage to talk to them during this extremely challenging time when they’re swamped caring for patients?
Ramsey: I’ve been grateful that a number of doctors and other healthcare professionals have felt comfortable speaking with me, either on the record or anonymously. A lot of them understand what’s at stake here if they don’t speak out about conditions in their hospitals, and a lot are interested in making sure the public has an accurate view on what’s happening inside.
Often, as long as I promise to keep their name out of it, it hasn’t been much of an issue. There are a lot of folks working in hospitals these days, so as long as I keep out too much identifying details about their day-to-day jobs, they have felt comfortable.
One of the things I’ve been trying to do is keep tabs with people as the pandemic carries on. What they might see one week could look completely different the next. Staying in touch has also helped build that trust.
Some days are easier than others to get ahold of folks, but luckily healthcare workers aren’t on all day every day. I’ve found times to chat with them while they’re off for a few days, in evenings after their shift — or before their night shifts, for that matter.
Sometimes, unfortunately, I’ve talked with folks who are out sick. I’m grateful that a lot of healthcare workers are willing to take some time to chat for a bit about what they’re seeing.
Oran: Coronavirus is a truly, 24/7, always-on story and you’re constantly talking to people who are surrounded by and looking at grim data every day. How do you avoid getting stressed out by it? How do you manage your own mental health during this time?
Ramsey: One of the things I’ve let myself get comfortable with is that we’re not just covering this story from a distance. The topic I’m writing about professionally is also the reality my family and I are living through personally.
Some days, it does get overwhelming and that’s OK. Some days, I feel totally motivated, other days completely defeated. I’m getting more used to accepting those emotions as part of my work week, which is a big adjustment.
For instance, one day last week I went to the grocery store during the day to avoid any crowds and was so overwhelmed when I got back that I just had to sit for a few moments and gather myself before returning to work.
On evenings I try to unplug as much. It’s helpful as I can by putting my computer and “desk” area away for the night, making an effort to socialize with friends and family a few nights a week.
On weekends, I’ve assigned myself baking projects. Last weekend was “pastry week,” and I made Kouign-Amann. It’s basically just pastry dough, sugar and butter — what could be better?
Oran: You are used to covering the business of healthcare. Now your beat is more focused around public health. Has your reporting process changed at all?
Ramsey: It’s certainly a different muscle. Up until now, I’d been covering a lot of big-picture shifts in the healthcare industry, digging into financials, reading through filings, and speaking with CEOs about strategies and where their business is headed.
Now, I’m spending more of my days trying to get a sense of what’s going on inside hospitals, as well as reading through research about clinical guidelines and epidemiologic projections. I started my career here at BI as a general science reporter, so getting back into the mindset of speaking with doctors and scientists and reading through developing research has been honestly pretty nice.
I’m looking for different stories than I usually do, both in my reporting and writing. So much of what’s unfolding is observational, but my business reporting still kicks in and has me asking for quantitative examples (ie: How many intensive-care unit beds do you have occupied right now, how many more do you think you’ll need).
Oran: What’s the most common question you get from family and friends who know you’re covering this?
Ramsey: Generally, because we’re here in Brooklyn, the first question is “How are you?” Which is much appreciated.
But later into the conversation, I’m often asked for my thoughts on how long our disrupted way of life is going to last. I wish I had a better answer for them than “Summer is canceled.”
I’ve also made a lot of them subscribe to my weekly newsletter, Dispensed, so they can stay updated on what’s going on amid the pandemic!
You can read some of Lydia’s biggest stories here.
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