Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Tag: Healthnewsreview.org

Medical Revolution(s)?

9780465050642This week an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine asks if our collective learning to handle uncertainty should be ‘the next medical revolution.’ It caught my eye because many of the medical educators I follow on social networks were abuzz about it.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a fuller-length exploration of medical uncertainty, a book called “Snowball in a Blizzard,” by Steven Hatch, an infectious diseases doc at UMass.

Both the essay and the book remind us to have humility: though medical technology and scientific knowledge have leapt ahead and continue to hurtle forward, our profession’s abilities to diagnose, treat, or predict future health outcomes with precision remain stubbornly elusive.

The metaphor of the ‘snowball in a blizzard’ comes from the world of radiology–in particular mammograms. That’s what radiologists who read mammograms are looking for on the images they see. It’s challenging and inexact work. Often they miss tumors that are cancerous; to correct for this, it’s natural that radiologists need to be extra cautious and have women with anything even remotely suspicious follow up for more images and possibly biopsies. [With negative biopsies, such mammograms become known as ‘false positives.’]

I agree with the thesis that we should all become more comfortable with uncertainty. But it will be challenging.

As patients, we want our doctors and scientists to be able to give us predictions that are accurate.

  • Is this the right diagnosis?
  • Will this treatment work?
  • How long have I got?

As doctors, we wish we had greater ability to answer these questions.

As ‘consumers,’ we are fed an unending stream of media that tell us what we ‘should’ do, what we ‘need’ to be healthy, and what will make us live longer. Much of it never offers the necessary caveats about the inexactness of the science. This will be an uphill battle.

I was pleased to see a chapter in Hatch’s book devoted to health media, featuring Gary Schwitzer and his website HealthNewsReview.org. Gary has devoted his latter career to debunking medical hype. His site is well worth perusing.

Media Matters

Regular readers of GlassHospital know that my primary goal is to offer insight into the world of health care, to pull back the veil on topics inherently and often unnecessarily complicated.

This blog has been the beneficiary of vigorous reader interest in health care. To me (and many others) it seems there is an insatiable appetite for content about health and medicine.

To that end, I want you to be aware of a worthy health news related website that is looking for help: It’s called HealthNewsReview.org.

HealthNewsReview.org is the brainchild of longtime health reporter Gary Schwitzer. Schwitzer (rhymes with “white-zer”) has spent nearly three decades on the beat–he’s been a print journalist, a radio broadcaster, and has spent time as a TV health reporter. [He was the head of CNN’s medical news unit when Sanjay Gupta was still in grade school.]F2.large

During his time at CNN, Schwitzer came to the conclusion that the world of health care journalism had become too inflated with puffery (hear that, Dr. Oz?). Too many stories lack balance: When reporting on new treatments or medicines, news sources omit discussion of harms, costs, and potential side effects. We all like positive stories, but analyzing the health beat revealed far too much unbridled optimism in predicting cures, youth, and vigor.

Schwitzer used the bully pulpit that came with being a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota to further his views on responsible health reporting. Looking for greater impact, Schwitzer left academe and has devoted his latter career to getting HealthNewsReview.org off the ground, and helping tutor others in the practices of responsible health journalism. He’s built a cadre of two dozen experts who review stories in the lay press and used a set of strict criteria to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

This summer, after seven years online (a millenium in web time!), HealthNewsReview.org lost its foundation funding. Similar efforts in Australia and Canada have fallen into abeyance over non-renewed funding. However, Schwitzer plans to soldier on. He’s no longer able to pay his two dozen or so reviewers, and has thus taken up the load mostly by himself.

This is where you come in. Schwitzer is opening HealthNewsReview.org to ‘crowdsourcing’ of media reviews (news stories, press releases, advertising, marketing, even journal practices). If you’re an avid consumer of health care and/or its literature (or its detritus), send Gary an email (or tell him a story like these two) at Gary [at] HealthNewsReview.org.

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