Friday, August 19, 2011

Are Doctors the Best Source for Medical News?

My friend and former boss at CNN, Gary Schwitzer, highlights two examples of apparent confusion about the distinct roles of journalists and physicians on his HealthNewsReview blog.

I often bite my tongue when I see docs on TV (or in print, online, etc.) putting medical advice into news stories. I know that criticism from a non-MD can appear to be tinged with envy of my medically-trained fellows on the health and medical beat. Actually, it's nothing of the sort.

Let me offer an analogy: if you were looking for the best coverage of transportation issues, such as whether federal funding should be tilted more towards freeways or mass transit, would you turn to Mr. Goodwrench? Auto mechanics are trained in the diagnosis and repair of cars and trucks. Some of them may then educate themselves about how transportation policies can best serve the community, but that's not part of their Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification training. In the same way, doctors are trained to care for individual patients. Medical school curricula contain little or no training in health care policy or economics... just the barest smidgen of public health... and certainly nothing substantial about journalism or mass communications.

Then consider this... in looking for the best reporting on world affairs, focusing on how to achieve a safer and more peaceful planet, would you consider military training or research into weapons development to be vital credentials? Well, just as generals are experts in waging war, not necessarily preserving peace, doctors are trained to fight disease, with relatively little education in underlying factors that promote and preserve health, such as education, good jobs, strong social networks, or even diet and physical activity. It makes just as much sense to turn to a cruise missile designer for advice on settling the conflict in the Middle East as it does to ask a medical researcher about why the United States lags most other developed nations in health and longevity.

I remember Gary once using the old saw "To someone with a new hammer, everything looks like a nail." I think of that phrase every time I encounter a doctor or medical researcher or industry rep praise the potential of some new test or treatment. If I'm building a house, I certainly want to employ a good carpenter with a strong hammer. But to design the house, I'll go to an architect, even if she or he is a klutz in the workshop. And if I'm looking for advice on what makes a healthy neighborhood, I'll turn to a specialist in urban affairs.

And so it is with news coverage of medicine. That's journalism. Or it should be.


PS Of course, there are doctors who are also stellar journalists. The point is that medical training does not certify health reporting skill. Indeed, it takes considerable effort to overcome the "patient in front of me" orientation of medicine in order to develop a sense of what the public needs to get in news coverage of health and medicine.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Given the current state of journalism, such commentary within "news segments" doesn't surprise me. And media execs don't seem to care. Sad time for our craft.