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Jan 21, 2010

Medical Journal of Australia editor responds to homebirth study concerns

Following yesterday’s Crikey and

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Following yesterday’s Crikey and Croakey pieces on the homebirth study which has been hitting the headlines, I thought it only fair to ask the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Martin Van Der Weyden, for comment.

I had raised concerns about the MJA (which is the Journal of the AMA) asking the AMA president, Dr Andrew Pesce, to do its editorial on the study, given the AMA’s opposition to homebirth and the heated politics of maternity services reform.

Below are the questions I put to him by email and in subsequent conversations, and his responses.

Q: I wrote that it was not helpful for the MJA to have chosen an editorialist with such a vested political interest at stake. Do you think this is a fair comment? Why did you choose the president of the AMA to comment?

A: Dr Pesce has a long track record of contributing to debate in the area, from before he was AMA president. We asked three obstetricians and a prominent statistician to review the article. He was one of the reviewers. We always ask one of the reviewers to write the editorial linked to the article. We always choose editorialists with an appropriate background. Futhermore, Dr Pesce identified in the Editorial that as competing interest: “I am President of the Australian Medical Association, which is opposed to home birth in Australia.” This whole area (of homebirth) needs debate. The current debate is informed by “somebody’s invading my patch”, that is what is behind the current criticisms. Maybe it’s the obstetricians, and maybe it’s the midwives. I am fulfilling my function of editor; to promote debate. The major finding of the study was statistically significant. If you want to critique the study, give me the data with an opposite finding. But I leave it to the authors to talk about their studies; otherwise I would be on the phone all day answering inquiries from journalists.

Q: Does the MJA or the AMA choose which journal articles will be press released? Did the AMA or the MJA draft the press release? Does the MJA check the press releases?

A: I select which articles from the MJA that the AMA media department might select to write press releases on. They send it to us and the authors for final approval. We check the press releases after they have been approved by the author.

Q: Should the press release have done more to acknowledge the uncertainties and complexities of the study and its findings?

A: That is not the purpose of the press release. The principal purpose of the press release is to draw the attention of the journalist to the article. The journalist reads the article, and have their own interpretations. The press release had contact numbers for the author. The press release is invariably cut to the bone by medical journalists. I don’t tell the Age or the SMH what to write, medical journalists write the articles. Journalists should read the article. I  sense this is a critique of the journalists. One of the better ones is Nick Miller at The Age.

Q: Does the AMA influence what you publish?

A: I have never been told by the AMA what to publish. I have complete editorial independence.

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