Why health journalists need medical training

I recently followed a brief spat on Twitter between a journalist and a doctor.  It did not go further than a few irritable tweets, but I had to agree with the doctor’s point of view.The journalist had written an article about the death of a South African shack fire victim, admitted to hospital with 100% burns, and the contrast in perceived care he received compared to that of a lesser burnt victim of the same fire who ultimately survived. A tragic story indeed, but one that repeats itself in principle on a daily basis all over the world where medical needs outweigh medical resources.The merits of the case are particularly well discussed in the comments section – well worth a read, and especially those made by doctors themselves. I am not going to repeat them, except to say that I agree with them.

But I do want to know how well journalists should be expected to do their job when reporting incidents like this, because there are always many sides to a story, especially one with strong aspects of tragedy. Affected families’ emotions as expected run very high, and in contrast the last thing overworked doctors in an overcrowded facility can afford to be is too emotionally involved.

So where does a journalist’s responsibility lie in reporting the story accurately?  There are many different stories to be told here and in similar situations – of loss and grief, of thwarted hope, of frustration at inability of medical science to heal, of overburdened facilities and healthcare workers, of stark, brutal economic facts that coldly determine who lives and dies.

To do a medical story justice, without taking sides, requires that a journalist knows and understands the issues playing out here, or at the very least makes an attempt to understand them by speaking to people who do know.

The practice of medicine is complex, and when economic realities are added to the mix there is little room for doctors to be emotional, and yet vast opportunity for patients, family members and the journalists who tell their stories to be so.  For a story of tragedy, told with a sense of anger and injustice, is one that is likely to draw more attention and to sell more publications.  That’s unfortunately just the way we humans are.

A story like the one above blames the wrong people and avoids the real issues, which are beyond the control of any of the players themselves. Journalism like this does no one any favors, creating perceptions that are inaccurate, misleading and ultimately unfair.  An editor would not allow someone without financial background or training to write an article on economic strategy or finance, surely?  Why should medicine be any different?

Editors and writers of reputable publications should know that a medium with such broad reach and influence should be used more carefully and responsibly. As apparent “custodians of the truth,” they have an obligation to the public to do so.

-Martin Young is an otolaryngologist in South Africa and founder and CEO of ConsentCare.

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