Just the Facts: Effective Medical
& Health Reporting Made Easy
By Guenther Krueger
Media stories tend to have a feeling of authority and permanence
to them, making people react negatively, even with hostility, when
there are errors. This is particularly the case for health-care
professionals who view sloppy reporting with disdain. When the Globe
and Mail has as its headline, "Fatal viruses return with
a vengeance," we might forgive the hackneyed combative style.
However, the first line which states, "They're back. Cholera,
malaria, tuberculosis..." is misleading, since not one of these
three diseases is caused by a bacterium.What else is incorrect in
the story to come?
Learning to report in as accurate and responsible a manner as possible is an ongoing process. Here are some tips and tricks I've learned that can help you get it right.
Ask the right person the right questions
Key questions include the following:
When you are out of your depth...
Keep in mind that often the best person to synthesize the results
of studies is the person that conducted the study. Research and
peer-reviewed journals demand a certain level of jargon. You on
the other hand can aim for clarity and even simplicity. Some appropriate
questions to ask of researchers include:
"What is the take-home message here?" "What are the implications for busy family physicians?" "Where does this fit into the existing treatment arsenal?" "Does it replace conventional treatments?" "Augment them?" "Or is it all too preliminary to tell?"
Aim for a logical flow and above all, clarity
Always keep in mind that disease causation is complex
Disease is caused by a range of factors. These include:
These and many other factors come together to make you ill or well, healthy or unhealthy. Simple, single causes are unusual but rather fit into a larger whole. Healthy people don't do one thing right, they do many things correctly. Unhealthy people often practice a wide variety of inappropriate things that contribute to their disease.
Be careful with extrapolation
Many times, research findings will alter the "risk balance"
of health in certain individuals. Lowering your cholesterol won't
necessarily make you live longer (although it's possible). What
it will do is lower your risk for cardiovascular complications,
causing you to stay healthy longer and thereby increasing your chances
of longer life. Continuing to smoke won't kill you (although again,
it's possible), but it will greatly increase your chances of all
kinds of harmful effects which will increase your chances of contracting
a range of diseases.
Risk is tricky to understand and interpret. While people want the shortest possible distance between cause and effect, responsible journalism will attempt to explain it more in terms of risk/benefit.
Improve your knowledge and your tools of the trade
You should be familiar with the scientific approach by which a
problem is defined, a hypothesis or question is raised, deductive
reasoning is applied, the hypothesis is tested through collection
and analysis of data, and finally, the hypothesis is confirmed or
You should understand the clinical trial process, the scientific
way in which agents or procedures are tested to ensure safety and
effectiveness. Methods are compared, often using a placebo or sham
treatment that makes objective measurements possible. There is also
a phase process where, for example, pharmaceuticals move from the
laboratory, into animals, then into selected individuals, and finally
into widespread use.
The more you understand about research design, the more comfortable
you will be in looking at scientific studies and analyzing where
potential problems might arise. Of course, few of us have the background
and expertise to determine whether appropriate statistical inferences
were made and whether the general study design is robust and well-constructed.
Even professional hire statisticians to do the number crunching.
However, you should be familiar with two terms: validity and reliability.
Validity refers to the extent to which the study measured what it
was supposed to. Reliability refers to whether the measuring device
is consistent in measuring whatever it measures.
There are many interesting and informative Internet sites that
explore all of the above-mentioned processes and concepts. As a
good journalist, you shouldn't have any trouble finding them.
A working knowledge of the principles of medical genetics, a field that is rapidly becoming a common denominator in many diverse areas, is useful.
Avoid the blame game
The pharmaceutical industry
How companies promote their products and influence consumer and
physician decision-making is a complex and controversial area. The
more you understand about the process the better you will be able
to navigate through the minefields of company-sponsored bumf.
Pharmaceutical companies are masters of the advertorial. Selected
scientific studies, presented by high-ranking researchers in professional
forums with carefully-invited and selected participants can provide
a very subjective environment for a product.
All that said, few advances have had such an impact on the quality of life in Western culture as the introduction of pharmaceutical agents. And of course, they are costly to produce and require a free-market economy in which to thrive.
Alternative therapies and products
None of this is good or bad, but it does require special challenges. My advice is to avoid those topics you consider flaky altogether.
Build up your personal reference library
Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 26th Edition A great overall book that I use almost daily.
Medical English Usage and Abusage by Edith Schwager Published
by Oryx Press, this reference is guaranteed to improve your grammar
A medical spell-checker is very useful for your word processor.
Several are available
The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine
A good reference presented in lay terms. Not particularly comprehensive,
but sometimes a good starting point when you know nothing about
a disease or problem.
Pharmaceutical reference books. There are many, and many people have a copy of CPS. However, I recommend going through the nursing section at the health sciences bookshop and browsing through several before you choose. Often these texts have useful patient teaching information that can be useful when writing a story.
Feel free to contact me if you have further questions: Guenther Krueger, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Sources, Number 45, Winter 2000.