By Dr. Kate Scannell, Syndicated Columnist
First Published in Print: 05/10/2013
The news in the Cincinnati Enquirer sounded dreadful. Someone who'd been suffering from "pulmonary peritonitis" had "died suddenly of pleurisy of the brain." Equally distressing, the Chicago Record-Herald reported that a man, following six gunshots and defying anatomy, died from "shock and lumbar pneumonia."And sadly (or at least I think so), according to an Erie, Pa., newspaper, three surgeons opined that a man "would always be a sufferer from chromatic epilepsy."
These and other examples of "misinforming and even ludicrous" medical journalism were colorfully recounted fully 100 years ago in the April 19, 1913, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Clearly, the physician-editorialist was annoyed by such careless health reporting. And when it came to inaccurate or misleading news that could actually harm people, he was outright incensed. He railed against "sensational newspaper articles concerning cancer and tuberculosis cures, some of which at least soon prove to be the rankest fakes."
It's always interesting -- although often unsettling -- to look back at physicians' critical writings about media coverage of science and public health. It's interesting partly because so many of those criticisms remain unchanged well beyond a century later. And it's often unsettling because ... well, so many of those criticisms remain unchanged over so long a time.
For example, fast forward a century to the May 4 edition of The New York Times, which published an opinion piece titled, "The Cancer of Optimism." Its physician-author critiqued the "irrational optimism" that drove doctors "to endorse treatments that most likely won't save patients' lives." Such optimism, he wrote, was "far from harmless" because it could cause patients "unnecessary suffering and inch their families toward medical bankruptcy." He cited pop culture as one source of this irrational optimism, with its frequent depictions of "heroic recoveries from seemingly life-threatening situations."
Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that the safest place to have a heart attack is on prime-time TV. And the web is a wonderful source of cures for every life-challenging experience, from baldness to knock-knees to death.
It's true that popular media -- whether century-old newspapers or modern-day websites -- try to package health news in a way to sell. But we physicians also sometimes contribute to this skewed venture, offering exaggerated claims and death-defying rhetoric.
Some medical journals have become mere extensions of marketing departments serving pharmaceuticals and device companies. Studies show that we doctors tend to be overly optimistic about our own patients' prognoses while lacking a healthy skepticism about so-called new medical advances. As the authors of "Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics" claim, "Without doubt, the media, medical journals, pharmaceutical companies, researchers, research funders, and academic institutions all have an interest in being associated with work that is perceived to be big, new, and important. That is a recipe for exaggeration."
Susan Dentzer, one of my favorite medical journalists, wrote four years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine that, "More broadly, a problem that is worsening in this era of the 24/7 news cycle is the frequent failure to put new developments into any kind of reasonable context for readers or viewers. In this environment, reporters become little more than headline readers or conduct interviews that amount to a 'hit and run' version of journalism .... "
Exploring Dentzer's assertion that some health journalists have become mere "headline readers" of medical literature, I thought it interesting to look at the headlines that become assigned to journalists' reports in public media. That's because many readers have become "headline readers." With lightning speed, they scroll through hundreds of headlines on their iPhones and abide health news blurbs that crawl relentlessly along the borders of their TV screens.
So, I performed a simple survey of some current media headlines about science and medicine. My most salient discovery: Approximately 99-plus percent of those headlines (and more so if Alzheimer's was involved) included the word "may." As in, "Alternative Therapies May Help Lower Blood Pressure." "Vitamin D May Reduce Risk of Uterine Fibroids." It made me wonder if anything, and everything, may or may not possibly do something, sometimes.
But my most surprising find involved news of the seemingly unlimited healing properties of cucumbers and beetroot juice. How could it have taken us so long to acknowledge these kitchen-variety cures for cancers, aging, weak elbows, blindness and cellulite?
And I was genuinely shocked to learn that "Tylenol May Treat Those Experiencing Existential Dread." I wish I had known that as an undergrad. Sartre must be turning over in his grave.
Reading so many headlines about health and science also made me deeply appreciative of the altruism of small creatures who seemed to be doing all they can to help humans. With innovation: "Newly Created Rats Designed to Speed Alzheimer's Research." By dropping hints: "Clues to Wound Healing Offered by Fruit Flies." And through motivational messages: "The Squid Beak Inspires Safer, More Comfortable Implants."
In the end, it seems fitting to conclude this column about long-standing pitfalls of medical journalism with lyrics from "The Dock of the Bay" by the late, and great, Otis Redding: "Look like nothing's gonna change. Everything still remains the same." Better yet, perhaps each of us should just take a Tylenol and sing the entire song a few times.
Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician and the author, most recently, of "Flood Stage."
© 2013, Kate Scannell
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Death of the Good Doctor--Lessons from the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic
A physician's memoir about the early AIDS epidemic (1985-1990) in the US. Originally published in by Cleis Press, 1999. Brought back into print in 2012, and reissued with photographs in 2018. Click here for its paperback purchase.
Death of the Good Doctor--Lessons from the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic, Digital editions
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Flood Stage -- A Novel
Interconnected short stories about the residents of a rural California community who encounter a devastating flood. Click here for its paperback purchase.
Flood Stage -- A Novel, Digital editions
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