Medical journals are shifting from science to politics

Medical journals aren’t what they used to be. Just ten short years ago, medical journals were places to report scientific study, interesting cases or clinical updates and reviews. They were, for the most part, about science and discovery.

Now, there is a dramatic shift of scientific content in our journals to politics and policy.

No where is this more evident than the much-heralded and widely read New England Journal of Medicine. (The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is not too far behind either.)

As an example, I was struck by this week’s New England Journal of Medicine article titles:

“Use of ADHD Medication and Criminality” (an observational study)
“Mammography Screening for Breast Cancer” (complete with poll)
“The Future of Obamacare” (Perspective)
“Lessons from Sandy” (Perspective)
“Drug Policy for an Aging Population” (Perspective)
“Intravenous Immune Globulin — How Does It Work?” (Review article)

I decided to look just 10 short years ago and compare what article titles existed in the New England Journal of Medicine from the week of November 21, 2002. Here are the article titles from that issue:

“Transient Ischemic Attacks” (Perspective)
“A Controlled Trial of a Human Papillomavirus Type 16 Vaccine”
“Glycoprotein-D–Adjuvant Vaccine to Prevent Genital Herpes”
“Extended Transthoracic Resection Compared with Limited Transhiatal Resection for Adenocarcinoma of the Esophagus”
“Normal Vision despite Narrowing of the Optic Canal in Fibrous Dysplasia”
“Specialty of Ambulatory Care Physicians and Mortality among Elderly Patients after Myocardial Infarction”

Perhaps the shift from science to politics in our major medical journals is an brief aberration, but I don’t think so. I have noticed this phenomenon and expressed my concerns in 2006. The trend has only continued to grow: even our presidential candidates for the last election had position papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine just before the election.


But the reality of politics and policy determining how medicine is practiced remains front-stage in medicine as cost and new structural concerns dominate health care. Medical questions, research and inquiry are increasingly second fiddle to health care political white papers. Adding to this lack of reporting of scientific discovery in major medical journals are the multiple rapid-fire, diverse portals for publication that exist for doctors and researchers these days thanks to the explosion of specialty publications and the Internet’s impact on information delivery to doctors. As a result, there is a fierce media race underway to keep doctors eyes focused on these antiquated journals’ content as doctors increasingly migrate away from print to electronic content.

If a major scientific journal like the New England Journal of Medicine decides to focus on policy instead of medicine, I suppose that’s okay. That is their prerogative. But perhaps now that politics and policy have grown to such an extent in a major medical journal like the New England Journal of Medicine, the editorial board of this journal (and the others of similar political bents) should consider changing their name from the New England Journal of Medicine to the New England Journal of Perspectives.

At least then our young doctors of tomorrow will fully comprehend what they’re getting.

Wes Fisher is a cardiologist who blogs at Dr. Wes.

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