As a physician journalist I find myself in a very fortunate and quite unique position: I am able to reach vast numbers of Americans on a daily basis and provide them with credible (and hopefully impactful) news on health and wellness. Medical journalism is similar to the practice of medicine in that we must put the patient first. Just as physicians provide patients with information they need to better understand their disease state and treatment options in a clinical interaction, physician journalists must carefully choose their words when on camera or quoted in print. In a clinical situation, there is time for questions and two-way interaction between doctor and patient.
In contrast, medical reporting in broadcast media is a very different situation: There is no opportunity for patient interaction and what is said must be something that will stimulate further conversation between viewers and their own private physicians. Statements must be clear, evidence-based and stories must be reported without bias.
I entered the world of medical journalism nearly five years ago. It is my job to carefully dissect and interpret new studies and provide candid and accurate commentary. It is essential that as a physician, I am able to communicate new research findings on new treatments or new health risks in a way that is non-biased and free from any external influence.
Moreover, it is vital that I am able to report stories in a way that does not sensationalize or overstate the effectiveness of any particular therapy. In the last several years, we have seen numerous examples in the media in which medical journalists have behaved in ways that have not met these lofty expectations. From Dr. Mehmet Oz and his overstated claims on herbal remedies to Dr. Sanjay Gupta and his heroic involvement in surgical cases while covering stories in Nepal and in Haiti, there are numerous examples from which we can all learn.
Dr. Oz ultimately testified before Congress concerning his choice of words when discussing non-proven therapies for weight loss and other common maladies. Dr. Gupta, a well-respected neurosurgeon and medical reporter, admits that when he is covering a story in a disaster area, he always is a “doctor first” and will respond to an emergency while reporting — even though ethics dictate that journalists should never be part of the story. For medical journalists, it can be difficult to decide exactly where the boundaries exist between the responsibilities of being a doctor and serving as a reporter.
The Society of Professional Journalists lists four major tenets in their Code of Ethics that I think must be upheld by any medical journalist in order to ensure that patients are protected from misinformation and sensationalism on television as well as in the print media. I believe that any physician who is contemplating entering the world of the media must be aware of these guidelines and think about how each can specifically apply to medical journalism. Below, I have listed each of these principles (as they are listed by the Society) and shared my thoughts on how they may apply to each of us when serving as medical reporters.
1. Seek the truth and report. As physicians it is our duty to carefully examine new findings and analyze studies in order to determine their scientific merit. It is important to understand exactly how researchers conducted their studies and arrived at conclusions prior to reporting on any new medical “breakthroughs.” While it may be a great headline to report on a new “revolutionary” treatment, it is far better to temper excitement with the facts — while a new finding may be promising, it takes time to determine whether or not it will truly be a groundbreaking new therapy. It is important that medical journalists describe the basics of any study to the audience — sample size, randomization, and design methods—in order to help viewers understand exactly what conclusions can be drawn for a particular bit of research. Once the data is reported, it is essential that the physician journalist place the findings in context — how can the study be applied to patients and how might it impact lives.
2. Minimize harm. Certainly, all physicians take an oath to first do no harm when caring for patients. This principle should also apply to physicians who are reporting the news. It is essential to remember that physicians, by their very title are given a certain level of elevated credibility. Physicians who are featured on television are provided an even higher level of credibility and believability. When a physician with well-respected credentials speaks to a national television or radio audience, most viewers believe what is said and do not question the source — this requires a physician journalist to carefully choose the words that they use to communicate complex ideas in order to leave no room for ambiguous interpretation. Sensationalization can produce confusion and may result in patients running for treatments that are not proven to be safe and effective in randomized controlled clinical trials. In addition, if a physician journalist is involved in debating policy or health care politics, he or she must remain respectful to the opposition and remember that, even though we may not agree with others, all involved are human beings.
3. Act independently. Conflicts of interest can destroy credibility and can also lead to perceived professional misconduct. It is essential that the physician journalist is careful to avoid any outside influence when reporting on a new device or treatment. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies can significantly influence the way in which data or breaking news stories may be reported. In order to remain and perceived as unbiased reporters, physician journalists must carefully disclose any relationships with industry and ideally avoid accepting any payments or gifts from industry partners. Avoid any form of “advertising” when reporting and always use trade names rather than brand names when appropriate. Always mention alternatives and competitive drugs or treatments when discussing a particular branded device or drug in order to provide the viewer with a more complete view of the story.
4. Be accountable. A credible and successful physician journalist must accept responsibility for your words when reporting. We all must be willing to respond to challenges and criticism in a respectful, professional way. Not all viewers will agree with your assessment of a particular story — and most certainly will not always agree with your position in a healthcare policy debate. Be ready to defend your position with vigor but also be willing to admit if you have made a mistake or error in your reporting or in any conclusion that you may have drawn. Clarify your position when required and be very transparent with your sources of information when appropriate. Carefully determine the impact of your words–as a physician on television, you are given an elevated level of credibility. Avoid the Dr. Oz example of sensationalization and over-blowing stories. If medical journalists are conscientious and honest, they will not likely be required to testify before Congress as in the case of Dr. Oz.
What is the bottom line?
The practice of medicine is an honor and a privilege: Every person with the degree of medical doctor is very fortunate to be able to utilize a particular set of gifts and skills to help others. Providing care to patients and offering treatment and even cures for chronic disease is incredibly rewarding. For me, as a physician journalist, it is equally as important to educate the public and improve awareness of diseases and their treatments. Television, radio and print media provide the opportunity for physicians to serve the pubic in an entirely different way. By discussing medical advances and drawing attention to common symptoms and medical problems, physician journalists have the chance to make a real impact on overall public health. Just as the physician has a responsibility to provide their very best to the patient when involved in patient care, the physician journalist also has an enormous responsibility to provide credible, non-biased, and accurate information to the public when reporting.
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