Tag Archives: Dr Oz

Physicians and Journalism: Responsibly Meeting the Challenge

As a physician journalist I find myself in a very fortunate and quite unique position—I am able to reach vast numbers of Americans on a daily basis and provide them with credible (and hopefully impactful) news on health and wellness. Medical journalism is similar to the practice of medicine in that we must put the PATIENT first. Just as physicians provide patients with information they need to better understand their disease state and treatment options in a clinical interaction, physician journalists must carefully choose their words when on camera or quoted in print. In a clinical situation, there is time for questions and two-way interaction between doctor and patient. In contrast, medical reporting in broadcast media is a very different situation–there is no opportunity for patient interaction and what is said MUST be something that will stimulate further conversation between viewers and their OWN private physicians. Statements must be clear, evidence based and stories must be reported without bias.

I entered the world of medical journalism nearly five years ago. It is my job to carefully dissect and interpret new studies and provide candid and accurate commentary. It is essential that as a physician, I am able to communicate new research findings on new treatments or new health risks in a way that is non-biased and free from any external influence. Moreover, it is vital that I am able to report stories in a way that does not sensationalize or overstate the effectiveness of any particular therapy. In the last several years, we have seen numerous examples in the media in which medical journalists have behaved in ways that have not met these lofty expectations.   From Dr Mehmet Oz and his overstated claims on herbal remedies to Dr Sanjay Gupta and his heroic involvement in surgical cases while covering stories in Nepal and in Haiti, there are numerous examples from which we can all learn. Dr Oz ultimately testified before Congress concerning his choice of words when discussing non-proven therapies for weight loss and other common maladies. Dr Gupta, a well-respected neurosurgeon and medical reporter, admits that when he is covering a story in a disaster area, he always is a “doctor first” and will respond to an emergency while reporting—even though ethics dictate that journalists should never be “part of the story”. For medical journalists, it can be difficult to decide exactly where the boundaries exist between the responsibilities of being a doctor and serving as a reporter.

The Society of Professional Journalists lists four major tenets in their Code of Ethics that I think MUST be upheld by any medical journalist in order to ensure that patients are protected from mis-information and sensationalism on television as well as in the print media. I believe that any physician who is contemplating entering the world of the media must be aware of these guidelines and think about how each can specifically apply to medical journalism. Below, I have listed each of these principles (as they are listed by the Society) and shared my thoughts on how they may apply to each of us when serving as medical reporters.

1. Seek the Truth and Report

As physicians it is our duty to carefully examine new findings and analyze studies in order to determine their scientific merit. It is important to understand exactly how researchers conducted their studies and arrived at conclusions prior to reporting on any new medical “breakthroughs.” While it may be a great headline to report on a new “revolutionary” treatment, it is far better to temper excitement with the facts—while a new finding may be promising, it takes time to determine whether or not it will truly be a groundbreaking new therapy. It is important that medical journalists describe the basics of any study to the audience—sample size, randomization, and design methods—in order to help viewers understand exactly what conclusions can be drawn for a particular bit of research. Once the data is reported, it is essential that the physician journalist place the findings in context—how can the study be applied to patients and how might it impact lives.

2. Minimize Harm (Primum non nocere)

Certainly, all physicians take an oath to first do no harm when caring for patients. This principle should also apply to physicians who are reporting the news. It is essential to remember that physicians, by their very title are given a certain level of elevated credibility. Physicians who are featured on television are provided an even higher level of credibility and believability. When a physician with well respected credentials speaks to a national television or radio audience, most viewers believe what is said and do not question the source—this requires a physician journalist to carefully choose the words that they use to communicate complex ideas in order to leave no room for ambiguous interpretation. Sensationalization can produce confusion and may result in patients running for treatments that are not proven to be safe and effective in randomized controlled clinical trials. In addition, if a physician journalist is involved in debating policy or healthcare politics, he or she must remain respectful to the opposition and remember that, even though we may not agree with others, all involved are human beings.

3. Act Independently

Conflicts of interest can destroy credibility and can also lead to perceived professional misconduct. It is essential that the physician journalist is careful to avoid any outside influence when reporting on a new device or treatment. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies can significantly influence the way in which data or breaking news stories may be reported. In order to remain and perceived as unbiased reporters, physician journalists must carefully disclose ANY relationships with industry and ideally avoid accepting ANY payments or gifts from industry partners. Avoid any form of “advertising” when reporting and always use trade names rather than brand names when appropriate. Always mention alternatives and competitive drugs or treatments when discussing a particular branded device or drug in order to provide the viewer with a more complete view of the story.

4. Be Accountable

A credible and successful physician journalist must accept responsibility for your words when reporting. We all must be willing to respond to challenges and criticism in a respectful, professional way. Not all viewers will agree with your assessment of a particular story—and most certainly will not always agree with your position in a healthcare policy debate. Be ready to defend your position with vigor but also be willing to admit if you have made a mistake or error in your reporting or in any conclusion that you may have drawn. Clarify your position when required and be very transparent with your sources of information when appropriate.  Carefully determine the impact of your words–as a physician on television, you are given an elevated level of credibility.  Avoid the Dr Oz example of sensationalization and over-blowing stories.  If medical journalists are conscientious and honest, they will not likely be required to testify before Congress as in the case of Dr Oz.

What is the Bottom Line??

The practice of medicine is an honor and a privilege—every person with the degree of Medical Doctor is very fortunate to be able to utilize a particular set of gifts and skills to help others. Providing care to patients and offering treatment and even cures for chronic disease is incredibly rewarding. For me, as a physician journalist, it is equally as important to educate the public and improve awareness of diseases and their treatments. Television, radio and print media provide the opportunity for physicians to serve the pubic in an entirely different way. By discussing medical advances and drawing attention to common symptoms and medical problems, physician journalists have the chance to make a real impact on overall public health. Just as the physician has a responsibility to provide their very best to the patient when involved in patient care, the physician journalist also has an enormous responsibility to provide credible, non biased and accurate information to the public when reporting.

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The Land of Oz: Engaging Viewers or Selling Snake Oil?

Dr Mehmet Oz, also known by many as America’s Doctor, is a very influential face within American medicine.  An accomplished cardiac surgeon and Columbia University faculty member, Dr Oz has impressive academic credentials.  However, in the last year, Dr Oz has received significant criticism for claims he has made about non traditional medical treatments on his nationally syndicated television show where he has called many of them “revolutionary” or “miracle cures”–many of his statements are without scientific merit and have no basis in traditional evidence based medicine.  Much of this culminated with his voluntary testimony in front of the US Congress this past summer.  During the hearing, Dr Oz was blasted for making sensationalized, misleading statements.  While I believe Dr Oz genuinely cares about helping others improve their health, I do think that he used poor judgement when speaking about these non traditional treatments.

This week, a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) examined the claims that have been made by Dr Oz and The Doctors syndicated television shows.  In the study, investigators randomly chose 40 episodes of each program and then attempted to find medical evidence for claims made about 80 separate treatments.  What they found was astonishing–only 50% of the therapies had either a study or case report to support the claims that were made by the television doctors.  More concerning was the fact that of the 80 recommendations from the Dr Oz Show, the data supported the claims only 46%.  In fact, nearly 15% of the time the best available evidence actually contradicted the claims that were made by Dr Oz on his show.  The Doctors television program did slightly better with evidence supporting their recommendations 64% of the time.   The investigators concluded that most recommendations from medical talk shows lacked adequate evidence to support their use and that television doctors do not provide adequate information on each treatment and do not disclose any potential conflict of interest.

This particular study has significant implications for both patients and physicians.  As physicians we are constantly confronted by patients who come into to the office to discuss treatments that they may have heard about on television.  We must not only be aware of these therapies but we also have to better educate patients and help them decide if any of the “Dr Oz treatments” are right for them and their disease process. Patients are bombarded with medical recommendations from television which are commonly sensationalized and oversold by television doctors and other well known personalities.  We must caution patients that when phrases such as “miracle cure” and “revolutionary treatment” are used on television when a particular disease or medical problem is discussed that the advice given is more than likely too good to be true.

As a physician that regularly appears on television to provide insight and commentary for medical stories and new medical developments, I am always careful to provide information that is based in fact.  Media personalities have a responsibility to report the truth–when giving opinion, we must be clear that we are in fact, making a statement of opinion that is based on fact and the best available medical evidence.  As physician journalist, I have an even greater responsibility to choose my words carefully–it is part of the American culture that TV appearances give on camera experts increased credibility and believability. While I believe that Dr Oz as well as the physicians who appear on The Doctors syndicated shows have the best of intentions, I do think that their zeal for ratings and viewers may lead to making less than accurate claims.  These shows have great potential–they bring medical issues to the forefront and actually help to engage patients in their own medical care.  We know that patient engagement is critical to improving outcomes–and these types of shows can play an important role.  Rather than reporting on non traditional therapies that have not been studied by randomized controlled clinical trials, television doctors such as Mehmet Oz could make a much larger impact by focusing on ways to prevent disease and reduce obesity among his viewers.  For now, viewers must continue to question medical claims made by Dr Oz and other television doctors.  And physicians who play prominent roles in the media must choose their words carefully and ensure that accurate, data driven information is provided to viewers–leave the snake oil at home.

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