10 trends in health care journalism going into 2010

Posted By


The good

1. This year we were treated to some terrific series and special projects, such as:

• The New York Times “Evidence Gap” series – exploring medical treatments used despite scant proof they work and examining steps toward medicine based on evidence.

• The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Side Effects” project – An occasional series examining doctors, drug companies and conflicts of interest. The latest entry is here but there are links to the entire series in the left column on that page.

2. Some blogs have become powerhouse pockets of high quality health care news and information. Just two examples out of many are The Carlat Psychiatry Blog and GoozNews.com. And it’s great to see Pharmalot.com back in business. Some major news organization’s blog efforts are noteworthy, such as the Wall Street Journal health blog. If you’re looking for consistently high quality coverage of medical research, MedPageToday.com is a good place to bookmark.

The bad

3. Network television health news was consistently so flawed that we stopped doing our rigorous reviews of their efforts since after 3.5 years and 220 stories we had seen and commented on plenty. See our posted explanation. We’re not ignoring TV news. We continue to use this blog to comment on what we see. But we’re not going to apply the rigorous process of transcribing the newscast, then asking three different reviewers to apply ten criteria to the stories. We’ve moved on to reviewing other news organizations’ efforts, where perhaps our efforts may have more of an impact.

4. We continue to find many news stories that give an incomplete, imbalanced view of many screening tests. News coverage of the US Preventive Services Task Force’s new recommendations for mammography screening in November was the most problematic I’ve seen in my entire career.

5. Related to #4 above, we continue to see many news stories that are governed more by emotions and anecdotes than by evidence. Such stories do not train news consumers to be good evaluators of evidence, either.

The ugly

6. The cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts in newsrooms have clearly done damage to the quality of health journalism in many sectors. We know how difficult are the circumstances for many of those left behind trying to cover these complex issues. See my report on the state of US health journalism published by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

7. In December alone we commented on at least a half dozen stories that were clearly pulled directly from a news release with no sign that any independent vetting or independent journalism took place. We don’t know if this is a sign of the economic times, but we find it appalling.

The data

8. An updated look at the first 900 stories reviewed on HealthNewsReview.org shows that:

• 71% fail to adequately discuss costs.
• 71% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential benefit.
• 66% fail to explain how big (or small) is the potential harm.
• 66% fail to evaluate the quality of the evidence
• 60% fail to compare new idea with existing options

9. You don’t need to work in Washington to cover health policy and health care reform. These stories – on new treatments, tests, products and procedures – one at a time and when piled on top of each other – start to give a picture of why the US spends a far greater percentage of its GDP on health care than any other country but without the outcomes to show for it. And journalism often doesn’t make the picture any clearer – often failing to challenge claims about expensive unproven technologies while focusing on the potential benefits and ignoring the potential harms. These are health care reform stories – whether you realize it or not.

The future

10. There continue to be some terrific training opportunities for health care journalists – most notably the NIH Medicine in the Media workshops held each spring or summer and the MIT Medical Evidence boot camps. The Association of Health Care Journalists has national and regional conferences and workshops that emphasize training, and, in 2010, they will publish a guide for journalists on how to report on medical studies.

We know that in 2010 Washington reporters will be busy covering the politics of health care reform. But in any city or town in this country there are rubber-meets-the-road health policy issues about how health care decisions are made, about what we’re paying for in health care, and about quality issues. Each day, each week, and each month stories could do a lot of good by starting to educate news consumers that in health care, more is not always better, newer is not always better and screening tests don’t always make sense.

Here’s hoping for even baby steps of progress along those lines this year.


You might also like


Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.


January 3, 2010 at 8:16 pm

To your list of excellent blogs, I would add the NY Times New Old Age Blog. It tends to have very practical advice that will be useful to caregivers of older parents and family. The recent excellent post on frailty is a case in point.