Monday, January 12, 2009

NEJM Makes It Official

The Role of Communications in Public Health
Communicating. It’s the first word on the first page in the first article of the first issue (of 2009) in what many would consider first among the medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine. My first utterance upon reading this was, simply, “Wow.”

In “Communicating Medical News – Pitfalls of Health Care Journalism,” Susan Dentzer, editor-in-chief of Health Affairs, writes “Whether they realize it or not, journalists reporting on health care developments deliver public health messages that can influence the behavior of clinicians and patients.” This is the lead that the NEJM chose to use for its first issue of the year. Not healthcare reform, not science policy, not clinical strategy. Communicating.

The article is a terrific platform to tell (or remind) its learned readership that they have a critical role in helping journalists get their stories right. As Ms. Dentzer points out, the consequences can be dire. With inaccurate details or story angles developed for shock value, patients can be spooked out of taking their medication or not even seek medical attention.

And, it’s not good for business either. Innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and diagnostic, device and biopharmaceutical companies can all suffer from the herds prodded on by cowboy journalism. In the latest issue of Health Affairs (28, no. 1), it was reported that U.S. health spending in 2007 grew at the lowest rate in nine years, mainly because of slowing prescription drug sales. Why? The availability of generic alternatives was a major factor. But Federal health officials also said that the trend in drug spending was influenced by increased safety concerns.

The problem of health and science reporting is further exacerbated, Ms. Dentzer said, by the many journalists who “consider themselves poorly trained to understand medical studies and statistics.” She laments also the lack of time, comprehensiveness and context afforded healthcare stories.

OK, so this isn’t exactly news to us in the communications/public relations field. Some journalists are ill-prepared and misinterpret the facts. Some news outlets are chopping their staffs and, thus, preventing opportunities for deeper investigation. And, some scientists and clinicians can’t form a coherent sentence.

Beyond the call for better training of health journalists and asking the medical community to provide wider balance, however, we need a change of mind-set. Journalists, news outlets, content experts and communications professionals all share a goal – get important, compelling information into the hands – the minds – of the right people. Let’s learn from each other. Let’s communicate. The bottom line is that we need each other if we are to inform and motivate and create positive changes in behavior. Though there’s a long way to go, having the role of communications in public health elevated in the NEJM is a great way to start 2009.

1 comment:

Brian Meshkin said...

Hey Paul -

Your insights are very appropriate. Health communications play an ever-increasing role in decision-making as many of those decisions are being passed onto the consumer/patient who is highly influenced by what the media reports. I look forward to reading the piece in NEJM and HA.