A team of medical researchers is urging the creation of a strong alliance between journalists and patient care leaders, to benefit patients, through improved trust on the part of consumers, in reliable sources of personal health and medical information.
In an article that appeared on April 22 in JAMA Network Online, a team of researchers—Vineet M. Arora, M.D., David Rousseau, M.P.H., and Gary Schwitzer—write about the “widespread and well-documented” decline among the public in trust in all public institutions, and its impact on healthcare consumers’ behavior. In “Why Bolstering Trust in Journalism Could Help Strengthen Trust in Medicine,” the authors note that “[M]istrust and confusion created by the 21st-century information ecosystem have contributed to outbreaks of once-eradicated vaccine-preventable disease, to overhyped research findings that confuse the public, and to distrust in the financial motivations of physicians, hospitals, insurers, and drug and device manufactures alike. Given the ongoing erosion of trust in information in news media, what roles can clinicians and journalists have to ensure the public’s trust in the information they need to remain healthy and to seek appropriate care when they develop illness?” They see an opportunity for “clinicians, healthcare organizations, and journalists [to] begin to rebuild the foundation of trust on which both medicine and journalism rely.”
As the authors note, “The relationship that medicine and journalism have with the people they serve relies fundamentally on trust. Yet, that trust can be jeopardized by the way in which news about medical research and health care interventions is often disseminated to the public. While science is incremental, journalists are faced with trying to breakthrough a cacophony of information using attention-getting headlines. As a result, media messages often convey scientific certainty when that certainty does not exist. In a review of more than 2600 news stories over 12 years that included claims about interventions, approximately two-thirds received unsatisfactory grades on quantifying benefits, harms, and costs.” Partly because of such problems, and partly because of the broad amounts of information available online, the authors believe that some new kind of broad consensus needs to be reached that involves thought leaders in both the news media and medicine.
“To rebuild trust in both medicine and health care news, the response of clinicians to health care news stories that are not accurate is as important as their response to those that are truthful,” the authors write. “It is easy for physicians to dismiss a news story with a patient in the privacy of their offices. It is more difficult to do so on a public-facing comment forum. However, journalism benefits from these corrections and feedback.” Indeed, they urge clinicians to “challenge celebrities who may be given a platform to spread misinformation in traditional news media or on social media. For example, an obstetrician has spoken out on her blog to explain why the jade eggs promoted for vaginal health not only lacked evidence, but could cause harm and an oncologist actively uses Twitter to address hyped cancer treatments based on insufficient medical evidence.”
Ultimately, the article’s authors write, “Given the many trust issues in today’s information ecosystem, medicine and media need to work together to make medical professionals better producers and consumers of information and to make news media better at curating and conveying the story of what is known, what is not known, and how confident to be in the health information reported by the media.”