NEJM vs. the NYT: Which should medical professionals read?

Ever since I started medical school, my friends and family will often ask my opinion on a new medical recommendation they recently read online or heard on the radio. The trouble is, many times their query falls upon my clueless ears, as it is the first I am hearing about that medical study. In this last year, as I diligently pour through my medical textbooks, or almost exclusively answer my clinical questions using UpToDate, I have sacrificed my knowledge of current events, including medical news as it is reported in the mainstream media.

I sense a growing deficit in my repertoire of general medical news in favor of First Aid. To combat this fear, I have recently subscribed to a mix of easily digestible morning emails, including theSkimm for general knowledge, The AMA’s Morning Rounds for health policy news, the Weekly Scope for research updates, and of course KevinMD for physician essays. I find that a combination of these sources, accompanied with the occasional trusty Facebook article helps keep me in the loop.

Through conversations with other medical students and my physician mentors, it seems a disparity often exists between the sources medical students and physicians are consuming medical news as compared to the general public. My family and friends are watching the Dr. Oz show, or scanning through an article that catches their eye on CNN, the Washington Post, or People.com. While I may peruse news stories on these sources for non-medical news, I don’t tend to read medical stories on these websites, instead relying upon scientific sources, or quite frankly lecture notes. Now, while the general public should not be expected to pour through academic journals for the most accurate and timely medical news, should we as health care professionals be making more of an effort to read the lay press for health stories?

I believe we should. Admittedly, it would be nearly impossible for medical professionals to maintain familiarity with each and every medical column published in the daily news. But in my mind, there are multiple identifiable advantages to devoting a portion of our day, no matter how brief, to reading medical stories as posted in the press, for the general public.

As a future physician, I aspire to help bridge the gap between patient and physician understanding of health and disease. One method of increasing patient health education is to increase patient exposure and knowledge of their conditions. This is frequently accomplished by incorporating and promoting health segments in the national news.

However, when patients hear about a treatment or medical recommendation on the news, then visit and ask their health care provider if they should take a specific supplement or diet as was reported, it can be discouraging and distancing to learn that their provider has never even heard of the same story. Conversely, if there is medical advice or a new health trend reported in the press with potentially adverse effects, it can be helpful for a health care provider to be aware of this and specifically ask patients if they are participating in any harmful trends as reported by the news.

As a medical student, I additionally observe personal benefits to my communication with patients by reading general medical news articles. I still lack a medical lexicon, and I believe that the way in which medical news is written in mainstream publications and articles is much more comprehensible and digestible than a scientific article. Reading a story intended for the general masses also helps me to avoid medical jargon when talking with patients, as I have a greater idea of vocabulary to use with non-medical peers and patients as I cultivate my patient care skills. This same sentiment was recently echoed by one of my professors who gave a lecture in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). She reads the lay press articles about IBD, because it helps her to know what patients may and may not be aware of, and how best to explain the disease in a way that is best understood by her patients.

Lastly, when health care providers read, view, or listen to medical stories in the press, it can also give providers a better idea of how the medical community is perceived by the public-encapsulating the good and bad facets. While health care providers witness and participate in patient narratives on a daily basis, it can evoke different outlooks and emotions to view the same story we may see first-hand in an office visit, now second-hand through the lens of the media and the eyes of a mere observer. It can be uplifting and career-affirming to watch the coverage of an inspiring patient recovery, a life saved through novel surgery, or the implications of medical breakthrough in the scientific community. It can simultaneously feel disheartening to learn about patient frustrations with the health care system, and be reminded of illness and suffering. But regardless of whether the story is encouraging or dispiriting, it is certainly different from what one may read in an academic journal, and it is undeniably informative.

Preeta Gupta is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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