Christopher Martyn, associate editor of the BMJ, writes about (subscription required for full access) the response to Atul Gawande’s “The Cost Conundrum” piece in The New Yorker and wonders “whether the problems of managing the nation’s health are discussed in a different way in the US. Is the level of debate on a higher plane than it is in Britain? Or are there better mechanisms for transferring what is written in medical journals into formats that are more widely available and accessible?”
Because I spend a lot of time scrutinizing US health care and health policy news, I read on. Martyn writes:
It isn’t that the UK media aren’t interested in medicine and health. Many newspapers have regular sections devoted to these topics. The trouble is that much of it is low grade stuff intended to pass an idle moment rather than stimulate informed debate. Why don’t the editors of serious dailies and weeklies emulate the New Yorker and commission some pieces tackling healthcare topics that matter? Instead of trivia about the illnesses of celebrities or whether feeding fish to your children makes them more intelligent, couldn’t we have discussions about whether the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is right to consider valuing quality adjusted life years (QALYs) differently at the end of life? Or why the (UK’s National Health Service) finds it so hard to deliver health care to those who need it most? Or what we actually mean when we talk about inequalities in health?
It’s always convenient to blame the media, but part of the fault may lie closer to home. Getting mainstream media coverage has become an important measure of success not only for researchers but for the institutions they work in, the bodies that fund them, and even medical journals. Courting media attention by issuing a press release when a paper is published substantially increases the chances of getting the findings on television or into the newspapers. But it also influences the way they are reported. Journalists working to a tight copy deadline don’t have the time or ability to make their own critical appraisal of the research. Instead, they rely on the content of the press release, supplemented perhaps by a telephone conversation with the researcher. You might think the claims made by these press releases would be measured and unexaggerated. After all, even if they’re written by university or funding agency press offices, they’re presumably checked by the people who actually did the research. But you’d be wrong. A recent evaluation of press releases from academic centres found that a large percentage overstated the importance of the findings and failed to mention aspects of the study that limited the clinical relevance of the results.
If you agree that raising the standard of reporting of medical research and healthcare issues in the mainstream media would be worthwhile, issuing fewer and more accurate press releases might be a good place to start.