Can health journalism be saved?

May 20th, 2019

The pace of medical innovation is often frustratingly slow. What may seem like brilliant inventions often turn out to work no better than placebos, and medical norms that we take as fact are regularly reversed. However, popular health news often fails to reflect the incrementalism and nuance of medical discoveries, instead hyping unproven treatments. 

In a recent Viewpoint piece in JAMA, Dr. Vineet M. Arora, Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, David Rousseau, Vice President at Kaiser Health News, and Gary Schwitzer, journalist and founder of HealthNewsReview.org, write that health news has created an erosion of trust in information in news media.

There are broader health implications of health care hype as well. As Dr. John Mandrola writes in Quillette, the promotion of genome sequencing, precision medicine, health care wearables, and other high-tech developments are leading us to seek medical treatment when it isn’t needed, leading to iatrogenic harm:

“While social media amplifies anecdotes of “saves” from personal health devices, real-world clinicians understand [that] it is hard to make a person without complaints better and interacting with healthcare comes with risks,” Mandrola writes.

Misleading and overly-positive health news is systemic; the majority of health news articles in 2017 did not adequately point out the harms and benefits of the featured intervention. This has led to confusion and “erosion of trust” in health news media, the authors write. Much of the hype in health news can be attributed to the need for clicks in an oversaturated market; incremental changes don’t get public attention. However, even cautious reporters can be led astray by spin in journal articles themselves, which regularly include positive claims although the primary endpoint results are negative.

Industry influence also plays a role in health news hype. Reporters may not be aware when their sources are doctors paid by drug or device companies, which could be create bias. Industry leaders have also funded health journalism conferences and trainings. Attending these events puts pressure on journalists to use the sponsors’ experts as sources and write positive pieces about sponsors’ studies or products. 

What can we do to make health news more balanced and restore public trust in health media? Arora et al. have some suggestions. First, we can invest in high-quality health care journalism, specifically local news where funding is scarce. Second, clinicians can amplify truthful messages about health care through social media, such as pediatricians tweeting with #VaccinesWork and doctors like Imperial College of London Professor Darrel Francis does with his educational tweetorials. Lastly, physicians, researchers, clinicians, and other health policy experts can call out hype and poor science when they see it. Here at the Lown Institute, we strive do just that.