Healthcare Journalism and Truth

(The following is reprinted with permission from John James, PhD, a patient safety advocate who came to his work after the loss of his son, Alex, to medical errors.  Dr. James publishes a monthly patient safety newsletter, and has written a book focused on what he learned about the dysfunction of America’s for-profit healthcare system. His book is called A Sea of Broken Hearts.  Dr. James has also been one of my guest bloggers.

I share it with you today, because it provides two lessons for us.  First, that whenever we access medical information, we must be sure we are assessing it objectively, and getting objective information from it.  And second, because it reminds us that medicine is so very personal, that almost no medical information can be completely objective.  Even those strictly scientific medical research results we find?… they were biased to some extent when they were designed.

Among those of us who bring you patient empowerment and patient safety information, we do try to be as objective as we can.  But…… well….. read what Dr. James has to say…. )


Healthcare Journalism and Truth

A perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine gave me a dose of my own medicine to ponder. Susan Dentzer, a medical journalist, poses important questions about the role journalists should assume in communicating information to the public.6 To what extent should the big picture be conveyed? How far can one go in sensationalizing a reported medical discovery? Is the story I am writing something my readers might use to determine their own care, and if so do I have a responsibility to be more careful? How far should I go in mentioning caveats to the reported results? Have I over simplified the results to keep my story short?

I have chosen to become a medical journalist in a most unconventional way. I am neither a journalist in the usual sense, nor am I a medical caregiver. I am only a medical scientist trying to communicate to my readers the important patient safety findings that appear in selected medical journals. I am not making a living as a medical journalist. I do this because my heart has been broken by uninformed and unethical medical care, and I do not want this to happen to others.

My stories are intended to be useful to readers in their own medical care and to be useful in informing ordinary folks of risks associated with healthcare. I must ask myself, am I writing in a balanced, objective and clear way? I honestly struggle with these issues at times. Medicine is incredibly complex and placing new information in perspective is not easy. If I seem at times to give medical advice, this is not my intention. I seek to convey scientific facts to you that will help you ask the right questions of your doctor. I’m not a physician, and I don’t pretend to be one.

Am I biased in my reporting to you? As much as I want to be objective, those of you who have read my book know that I think we have an unethical, dangerous and profit-driven healthcare industry. I will do all I can to expose examples of these problems and show how we might one day have an ethical, cost-effective, inclusive, and trustworthy healthcare system. I am biased that way.

As careful as I try to be, I will make errors of perspective and balance in my stories. For all the criticism I level at the American healthcare industry, I too shall err.

~ @ 2009  John James, PhD

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Trisha Torrey
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