How could the quality of health reporting be lifted?

Here are some suggestions from recent initiatives and articles, in the first part of a mega-wrap covering media and health-related issues. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of these come from the US, can it?

• A US hospital has given a journalist free reign to spend several months there as an “embedded reporter”. Can you imagine any of our state bureaucracies or hospitals allowing this?! In my dreams, maybe…

• Another great idea: the Association of Health Care Journalists has announced a new fellowship program to help journalists understand and report on the performance of local health care systems and the US health system as a whole. The AHCJ Media Fellowships on Health Performance, supported by The Commonwealth Fund, provides for training as well as assistance for reporting projects. It is intended to give print, broadcast and online reporters an opportunity to learn about examples of high-performing health care systems, to focus on innovations in care delivery, and to explore a system or its significant parts to determine what makes that system effective or ineffective.Who might think of doing something like this in Australia? It would certainly be helpful…

• Another idea for boosting health policy reporting comes from California, where the California HealthCare Foundation has funded a Center for Health Reporting, and recently employed five specialist health care journalists. According to the announcement: “The Center is funded by a three-year, $3.285 million grant from the California HealthCare Foundation, an Oakland-based independent, non-profit philanthropy whose mission is to improve the health and health care of all Californians.” The aim is to complete at least 50 major projects during that period.

This blog, meanwhile, links to related articles examining why there is a need to improve the depth of media reporting of health policy and reform.

• An innovative way to tell a story online: a pregnant paediatrician writes about problems with the care surrounding her own baby’s delivery and after care. Her diary-style account is interspersed with the perspectives of those treating her (according to what they wrote on her medical chart), and the hospital’s official response. There are light years between the patient’s and the system’s accounts.

• The LA Times has a terrific column called The Health Skeptic. This particular column examines the merits (or lack thereof) of products being promoted as colon-cleaners. What I like about the column is that it asks readers to send in ideas for health consumer products they’d like investigated. (And thanks to Gary Schwitzer’s blog for the referral to the column. As he says: “Why don’t more news organizations do something like this?”. My answer – because often we’re too busy promoting dodgy products instead….)

• Another suggestion for improving health reporting: why don’t more journalists include details of the “number needed to treat” in their stories?  Let me see, one reason might be that it might often make their stories sound a lot less exciting, and perhaps even kill them altogether…

• Also courtesy of Gary Schwitzer – here are some excellent tips for reporting on observational studies. Just because, for example, people who eat more chocolate tell better jokes (OK, I’m making this one up) – that doesn’t mean that chocolate causes a more finely developed sense of humour. And yet that’s exactly how we see observational studies being reported, time after time.

• Journalists (including this one) are often on their high horses about researchers, clinicians and health organisations taking funding from pharma. It’s different of course (NOT) when journalists are involved. Pfizer is funding cancer fellowships for US journalists, via The National Press Foundation. In Australia,  the National Press Club has been happy to get into bed with Medicines Australia for a journalism award. Can journalists who enter such awards then critique industry-funded awards, prizes and other such incentives for health professions?

• You might have heard media reports recently about new research suggesting Twitter is spreading medical misinformation. Thanks to Gary Schwitzer for the glass houses reminder on this one.

• It’s so easy to bag journalists and the media though isn’t it? Journals and their press releases could also often do a better job, according to this thoughtful article by a journal editor.

• And nor can we assume that scientific and medical journals are giving us the “full story”, according to this recent review of reporting bias in the medial literature. It identifies reporting bias in a stack of areas, including around treatments used for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, pain, migraine, cardiovascular disease, gastric ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, urinary incontinence, atopic dermatitis, type 2 diabetes, hypercholesterolaemia, thyroid disorders, menopausal symptoms, cancers, infections and acute trauma.

The authors said: “Many cases involved the withholding of study data by manufacturers and regulatory agencies or the active attempt by manufacturers to suppress publication. The ascertained effects of reporting bias included the overestimation of efficacy and the underestimation of safety risks of interventions. In conclusion, reporting bias is a widespread phenomenon in the medical literature. Mandatory prospective registration of trials and public access to study data via results databases need to be introduced on a worldwide scale.”

• Part 2 of this wrap is coming soon, and will focus on social media and health.

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