Gary Schwitzer began publishing HealthNewsReview.org in April of 2006 after a year of preparation. This project is the pinnacle of his 45-year health care journalism career.
It appears that this unique project’s span of more than 12 years of public service to journalism and to the general public will end in December when HealthNewsReview.org ceases publication. Our current funding ends then with no replacement funding in sight, and I will slip into retirement. I will still post an occasional piece. And I plan to keep the website open and searchable for a couple of years. But my terrific editorial team will reluctantly dissolve and go on to other pursuits.
I want the public to remember what we did when we were at full strength.
We were clear about what we stood for: improving the public dialogue about health care. We educated journalists and the general public to help them improve their critical thinking about health care, and about claims made in research, in journal articles, and in the marketing rollout of new health care interventions in the medical arms race.
Amidst the daily cacophony of claims of cures, breakthroughs and game-changers we became – for thousands of you – a place to turn to every day in order to step back, view the bigger picture, and learn how to ask tough, appropriate questions. Almost every day we have awakened to emails or social media messages with plaintive cries for “Help” or “Anxious to see what you have to say on this” in response to the tsunami of confusion washing over so many of you.
We stood for combating health care hype – from any source – because of the very real harm it can and does cause to real people.
We stood for sometimes standing alone – as we often did in certain situations and scenarios in which we knew we were the only publisher questioning evidence, the only one raising issues of conflicts of interest in health care or even in health care journalism, the only project to systematically analyze the quality of health care journalism and public relations efforts, and the only one to regularly scrutinize claims made in advertising, marketing, talk shows, op-eds and elsewhere.
Journalism, which is supposed to be a watchdog, needs to have a watchdog eyeing it – especially on health care topics so often polluted by inaccurate, imbalanced, woefully incomplete reporting. For 12+ years we have been that independent, expert watchdog. One physician, on Twitter this week, called us “the Mighty Mouse watchdog.”
When I started planning this project in 2005, I never thought about a 12-year run. I will forever be grateful for the initial support of Floyd J. (Jack) Fowler, PhD, of the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making (now out of operation), and for the ensuing support that FIMDM gave this project for more than 8 years. Then, the four final years of support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation allowed me to build a team that brought this project to new heights of bold new undertakings and new impact. These were the purest of hands-off, no interference funding relationships. These have been the best years of my 45-year journalism career.
My team and I will share final personal parting thoughts closer to the end of the year. Meantime, we are hard at work on our new series telling stories of people discussing real harms from misleading media messages about health care. If anyone finds it easy to dismiss the caveats and constructive criticism from my expert team of industry-independent editorial contributors, maybe the stories of real people incurring real harm from shoddy mass media messages will open their minds. This series is one more of the kinds of themes you could only find addressed regularly on HealthNewsReview.org.
My widespread search for continued funding for this project has been fruitless. Maybe we’ve made it hard on ourselves by following a stricter fundraising conflict of interest policy than those of many of the journalism organizations we write about. But that was vital to our integrity. There is so much more that could be done – and needs to be done – to educate journalists, PR and marketing professionals, the health care industry and clinician-researchers about the harm that is done by shoddy and conflicted health care communication. So who will attack this need and provide adequate no-strings-attached funding for work like this in the future?
Will anyone take on a project like this again? Will anyone fill this void? Who? How? When?
If not, why not?
And with the HealthNewsReview.org team no longer systematically watching and reviewing every day, will the standards of responsible health care communication to the public be lowered? You can review the report card we published at the end of last year to see the scope of polluted health care news and public relations messages in this country.
How will we ever achieve truly meaningful health care reform when our public dialogue about health care is as misinformed and misguided as it is?
These questions will continue to burn in us – over the next six months and long after we cease publication. As my team breaks up and we go our separate ways, we will surely each continue to watch although our voices may not be heard as often or as powerfully as they were through this important platform for the past 12 years.
We hear you, Dylan Thomas. We will not go gentle into that good night, but will rage against the dying light.