EP Perspectives

The Media, Physicians, and Medicine: Opportunities to Impact Health, and Pitfalls to Avoid

Kevin R. Campbell, MD, FACC,
Assistant Professor of Medicine Division of Cardiology
University of North Carolina
Raleigh, North Carolina

Kevin R. Campbell, MD, FACC,
Assistant Professor of Medicine Division of Cardiology
University of North Carolina
Raleigh, North Carolina

Mainstream media is a powerful tool for health and wellness education. According to Nielson ratings, in a 65-year lifespan, the average person will have spent nearly nine years watching television. This time with a “captive” audience of healthcare consumers and potential patients represents a huge opportunity to widely distribute healthcare and wellness information. Educating patients via mainstream media can be an important way to prevent disease and improve patient engagement.

Unfortunately, not all information provided on television and radio is supported by data, and some sources may actually provide “misinformation” via sensationalism in order to make a particular story more appealing or to gain better media market share. As healthcare providers, we all can make a difference in the way in which healthcare information is distributed in the media — by simply getting involved. 

WE MUST GO WHERE OUR PATIENTS ARE NOW, AND WHERE THEY WANT US TO BE!

While more hospital systems assimilate physician practices and smaller community hospitals, the academic medical center reach has significantly expanded. Many of us are now providing outreach electrophysiology services to community hospitals — taking advanced therapies to places where these therapies were not previously offered. Patients are able to receive cutting-edge treatments closer to home. The media affords similar opportunities — by bringing health and wellness information into patients’ homes via television and radio, we are able to improve awareness and connect patients with information that may impact their care.

A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion found that no single type of print material on health was as effective as non-print sources such as television and radio. In addition, as I have discussed before, social media is another very effective medium for the dissemination of timely healthcare and wellness information. As Americans age, they tend to watch more television news, and healthcare-related stories are the fifth most common topic covered on the evening news.1 Mainstream media outlets are always looking for important health topics to include as part of their daily content. The most popular and successful networks include relevant stories that have the potential to change behavior and improve health amongst viewers. In fact, another survey found that over a three-month period, most health-related news concerned either the cause/treatment of a specific disease or lifestyle/environmental risk factors. 

Health topics are not limited to the evening news. Many primetime shows also address health and wellness — according to the CDC, nearly 67% of all primetime television viewers during a six-month period reported learning something new about a health or wellness topic simply by watching TV. More importantly, one-third of these respondents reported taking action after hearing about a particular health topic on TV.2 These statistics argue for more involvement by the medical community in traditional broadcast media — if not as journalists, at least as monitors or advisors — making sure that the healthcare stories are based in fact and do not mislead viewers or present inaccurate information. 

DO CONSUMERS REALLY TRUST BROADCAST MEDIA?

While healthcare information is abundant in traditional broadcast, print, and digital media, not all information is accurate. Consumers are taking action based on what they learn from the media, and as healthcare professionals, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that our patients are able to act on information that is proven to be true by good science and well-conducted clinical trials. 

A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumers trust health and wellness information obtained from television almost as much as they do information presented to them by a physician — 93% vs 74% — followed closely by information found on the internet (60%).4 Studies such as this make it clear that broadcast media is a powerful tool for disseminating healthcare-related information. However, sometimes what is disseminated in the media is sensationalized for ratings and presented in misleading ways. 

THE PHYSICIAN JOURNALIST: WALKING A FINE LINE

As healthcare providers, we are all held to a very high standard — both professionally and personally. We are often given the benefit of the doubt and have a great deal of credibility simply due to our position within the hospital and our extensive advanced degree. The plurality of roles faced by physician journalists can be daunting. It is important that when a healthcare provider is reporting a story and serving in the role of journalist, that he or she does not become part of the story. As healthcare professionals, our instincts are to act and get involved. As journalists, we must respect patient privacy and remain neutral in the events that occur before our eyes. Our duty must be determined in that moment. For example, when reporting on the crisis in Haiti, Dr. Sanjay Gupta became part of the story when he began to provide care to patients in need following the earthquake. He continued to film and report while also working as a healthcare provider in the midst of the disaster. As a physician and healer, he did what came natural; however, his actions were the object of much scrutiny as many onlookers questioned whether or not his entry into the story violated journalism ethics. In an editorial published in JAMA late last year, author Rita Rubin addressed this issue.5 Physician journalists must accept the near impossible task of balancing two disparate professions with different ethical standards and goals. It is important that each physician journalist make a determination of which role they will fill during their involvement in a particular story. It is clearly unethical to make a doctor-patient relationship “part of the story” and expose a patient’s privacy to make it more compelling. It is important for physicians to either maintain a doctor-patient relationship OR report a story — there is no way to do both. The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) crafted a position statement in response to several of these high-profile media events:6

“Giving aid to people in need is natural and often commendable, but in a media environment where celebrity brings financial rewards, stories that feature journalists’ aid efforts elevate their personal interests and those of their employers above the public’s interest….

…If journalists have given aid, they should seek other faces for their stories.”

The document goes on to outline the AHCJ’s Statement of Principles and concludes by stating:

“In summary, do not exploit vulnerability for gain or glory.”

These statements set very high standards for the physician journalist, and serve to both protect the patient and preserve the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship.

AVOIDING THE OZ EFFECT

Some physician journalists naturally “cross over” to entertainment rather than true news reporting. This can become a slippery slope and can put many patients at risk. As many are aware, Dr. Mehmet Oz has become “America’s Doctor” through his extended reach and notoriety obtained from his time on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He developed a national brand and eventually earned his own daytime syndicated show. However, Dr. Oz has been under fire in the last several years due to several sensationalized claims he has made concerning weight loss products and other “non-standard” medical therapies. In June 2014, he was subpoenaed to appear before Congress in order to explain his statements and whether or not he had intentionally misled the public both through his show and based on his celebrity status. In an article published by The BMJ, researchers evaluated claims made by both The Dr. Oz Show as well as another well-known medical show, The Doctors.7 In the study, it was found that nearly 47% of medical recommendations made on The Dr. Oz Show and 67% of the claims made on The Doctors were based solely on a small number of case reports to support them. More concerning was the fact that 15% of the medical claims made by both shows had significant published evidence to actually contradict the show’s recommendations.

Physician journalists must be careful to base all of their statements in fact — avoiding sensationalism is critical to providing important information for patients that will actually make a difference in their health status. Patients, healthcare consumers, and general television audiences give great credence to what physicians say in the media. Physicians must not allow bias to influence their reporting and must be sure that all statements that they make are well thought-out, measured, and free from ambiguity. 

HOW CAN WE GET INVOLVED?

It is essential that more well-trained healthcare professionals enter into the media space. Not every doctor or other healthcare provider will be interested in speaking on camera or live on the radio — but many will. Some healthcare providers may enjoy writing or providing quotes for various media outlets. It is imperative that IF you decide to interact with the media, that you come prepared. Many hospital systems have public relations and communication officers who can help prepare you for media interaction and appearances. Most of these individuals are well trained in the media, and many have worked for television and radio in the past. For those who want to spend more time with the media, professional media training (see sidebar) may be an option. 

Quick tips for success on camera:

  1. Come prepared. Know your topic well. 
  2. If possible, reach out to the producers/anchors prior to your interview and get an idea of the questions that will be asked and the scope of the story. 
  3. Speak in sound bites — make clear, concise points. 
  4. Watch your body language — non-verbal communication can dominate any visual media such as television. 
  5. Treat everyone you encounter in the media with respect. 

The media provides physicians with a great opportunity to impact health and wellness in the United States. Most Americans watch TV news, and many make lifestyle changes based on medical reports aired on mainstream news channels. Consumers trust healthcare information provided by the media almost as much as they trust information provided by physicians. While the media does provide a massive opportunity for physicians to educate the general public, it comes with great ethical responsibilities. We must always remember to put the patient FIRST, and never breach the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship when working with ANY media outlet.

References

  1. Assessing Local TV News Coverage of Health Issues. Kaiser Family Foundation. Published Feb 28, 1998. Available online at http://kff.org/other/assessing-local-tv-news-coverage-of-health/. Accessed April 11, 2016. 
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. and World Population Clock. 2007. Available online at http://www.census.gov/popclock/. Accessed August 7, 2007.
  3. Nielsen Media Research. Total audience report. 2007. Available online at http://www.nielsenmedia.com. Accessed August 17, 2007.
  4. Hesse BW, Nelson DE, Kreps GL, et al. Trust and sources of health information: the impact of the Internet and its implications for health care providers: findings from the first Health Information National Trends Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165(22):2618-2624. 
  5. Rubin R. Navigating the Minefields of Medicine and Journalism. JAMA. 2015;314(6):545-547. 
  6. AHCJ urges reporters in disaster areas to avoid focusing on selves. AHCJ. Published Dec 20, 2010. Available online at http://healthjournalism.org/about-news-detail.php?id=110#.VwL-7MeNLrN. Accessed April 11, 2016.
  7. Korownyk C, Kolber MR, McCormack J, et al. Televised medical talk shows—what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study. BMJ. 2014;349:g7346.
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