By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Study cites high level of misunderstanding, cynicism and skepticism in relationships between reporters and doctors sp.
AT A TIME when news about health care has become a priority, a new study has found an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between reporters and doctors that exceeds all other beats. "Mistrust and misunderstanding infect many members of the medical profession when their practice leads them into contact with members of the news media," the study found. In addition, the report discovered, "Cynicism and skepticism afflict many members of the press when, in the course of their work, they encounter doctors and other health care professionals." The study, "Under the Microscope: The Relationship Between Physicians and the News Media," was co-authored by former American Medical Association president Harrison Rogers Jr. and Rita Rubin, an associate editor at U.S. News & World Report magazine. Released by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the survey polled physicians, members of the AMA House of Delegates, medical reporters and members of the Associated Press Managing Editors association. While Rogers and Rubin found that both journalists and medical professionals agreed that they "share responsibility for not misleading the public," that is about where consensus ends. For example, while more than two-thirds of the doctors surveyed believe that news coverage is slanted against the medical profession, not surprisingly, the journalists surveyed strongly disagreed. They also disagreed about whether reporting enhances the status of medicine; whether journalists portray a positive view of doctors; whether journalists get the details of medical reporting correct; whether coverage is too sensational; whether journalists' education is sufficient to prepare them to cover medical issues; and whether journalists can be objective. The two groups disagreed to a lesser extent in such areas as whether reporting concentrates too much on doctors; whether doctors frequently in the news are publicity-seekers; whether the media's emphasis on medical reporting is excessive; and whether the low pay offered medical writers tends to attract the best and brightest. "Physicians, especially those active in organized medicine, believe that reporters are biased against the medical profession and that they tend to sensationalize health care stories," according to the report. "Medical reporters," it continued, "depend too much on press releases and not enough on their own instincts, curiosity and digging . . . [and] reporters often botch the technical details of medical stories because they fail to do their homework." The study also found, "Editors of the leading medical journals wield great influence in determining which research is covered by the general press," although television tends to avoid "covering complex medical topics because it focuses on stories that have eye-catching visuals and can be sum-med up briefly." The doctors surveyed also indicated that the relationship between journalists and doctors has grown steadily worse during the past five years, although they believe that the quality of medical coverage has improved. Doctors are aware that they need to be able to communicate with non-doctors, the report said, especially in light of public interest in such issues as health care reform, doctor-assisted suicide, abortion, HIV/AIDS and ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as low-fat diets and exercise. "Most journalists and doctors agree communication would improve if they understood each other's profession better," Rubin and Rogers wrote. "Although their reasons may differ, both physicians and medical reporters want the information they share with the public to be as clear and accurate as possible. Achieving that goal can appear as daunting as hammering out a peace accord between warring factions that don't speak the same language," the study reported. "Most reporters, not to mention readers and viewers, lack specialized training in clinical medicine or medical research. Most doctors are more skilled at talking with colleagues than with reporters." To that end, both sides agreed that communications could be improved if both sides do their homework, speak plain English and respect each other as professionals. Doctors also point out that while they understand that media work on deadlines, their patients always come first. "They can't duck out in the middle of an operation or an examination to take a call," one physician noted. The way that medical news gets to reporters also has changed dramatically, as doctors, medical associations, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and health organizations now court reporters with press releases, tours and other public relations tools. This has led, however, to the accusation that medical writers have become lazy and report only news from press releases. Respondents lay some of the blame on the fact that most journalists simply do not have the advanced science and medical training to fully understand the fine details of some medical reports ? half of the journalists surveyed said they had no formal science training. After assessing attitudes and perceptions of journalists and doctors about each other, Rubin and Rogers made a list of suggestions for each to help ensure a better flow of health care news to the public. For the news media, the report suggested the following: ? Because health care "touches readers and viewers in greater numbers and more personally than perhaps any other subject," the "medical beat deserves consistent coverage by one or more informed reporters . . . . " ? Medical reporters should be used as "in-house experts and error-catchers on all stories with health care components." ? Reporters should "be encouraged to further their education by attending medical meetings and science-writer seminars and applying for any of a variety of available fellowships." ? Before interviewing doctors, reporters should "do their homework." ? Because a partial story is worse than no story, news outlets should give reporters time and space to fully examine complex health care issues. ? If requested, reporters should review direct quotes and technical information with their sources to ensure accuracy. ? Subscribing to leading medical and science journals is important, but reporters should make regular trips to medical libraries and read other periodicals. Also, remember that publication doesn't mean that the study is flawless. ? Press releases and promotional materials should serve only as "springboards" for stories. ? To help them put new developments in proper context, medical writers should maintain "advisory panels or informal networks of trusted experts in a variety of specialties."