Medical Writers Should Act like Political Writers

Article excerpt

If the average political reporter related what a senator or president said without seeking a contrasting opinion, he would be little more than a public relations hack posing as a journalist.

Of course, no political reporter in his right mind would accept statements at face value from a politician. Yet this very lack of critical perspective permeates medical reporting.

Most medical reporters report only what is described by "the experts" and by the public relations folk who work for hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers and other companies that make their profits from health care.

For example, most medical reporters ignore the fact that "non-profit" hospitals compete as fiercely for market share as profit-making businesses. They report high-tech advances as if they were miraculous benefits for humankind rather than new profit centers for their makers and users.

Reporters dutifully describe the value of carpal tunnel surgery for hand pain but ignore highly effective, low-cost non-surgical treatments. And they faithfully exhort the need for more donor hearts for transplants but again remain oblivious to the medical literature supporting the use of effective and inexpensive non-surgical treatments.

Let me explain where I am coming from. For 19 years, I have written regularly for a variety of "alternative" health magazines, including EastWest Natural Health and Let's Live. I also produce my own small-circulation newsletter, the Nutrition Reporter, which culls research from medical journals on therapeutic uses of vitamins and minerals.

I have also worked briefly for the more established medical press, editing legitimate medical journals and a few of the "throwaway" journals that look legitimate - except that they are wholly paid for by the drug companies that advertise in them. I also do public relations writing - but not for health-food companies.

Although the average citizen believes that medical officialdom has his welfare in mind, the reality is that medicine is every bit as political as life in Washington. For all the different types of people and organizations within it, orthodox medicine remains a one-party system bent on promoting itself and castigating those who dare to disagree.

Whether you are covering political or business beats, every reporter is taught to get a statement from "the other side" to ensure some semblance of balance. In politics, it may be calling a Democrat when a Republican makes an announcement or getting a comment from a consumer group when a company makes a pronouncement.

Medical reporting has largely been devoid of this system of checks and balances. Why? In my opinion, medical reporters have been convinced that they cannot understand medicine or details of how the body works, and doctors serving as reporters are not likely to take stands unpopular with their fellow physicians.

Behind the scenes, medicine - both conventional and unconventional - teems with controversy. Put two cardiologists in the same room, and they are likely to disagree about something as non-controversial as how to do a balloon angioplasty. Widen your field of vision, and you will find there is not just one minority party, so to speak, in medicine but dozens of them.

As in politics, medical decisions are not always discussed rationally or made for honorable reasons. Even when intelligent discourse is encouraged, it is rare to see all the facts on the table. The name of the game is too often power, not truth.

In my experience, medicine is no more difficult to grasp than nuclear power, a field in which a lot of reporters profess expertise. Of course, I am not a physician, and I recognize my limitations. I bite off medicine a small piece at a time.

Most reporters let themselves be spoon-fed whatever the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration, drug companies or hospitals want them to know and report. …

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