Tips to promote quality in healthcare reporting

February 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm 2 comments


This blog is aimed at those who work in pure science and academic medicine, at the coalface of healthcare, those who are science and medical writers and commercial biotech and pharmaceutical sector employees, and these are professionals who are interested in quality reporting of scientific and medical studies. Indeed, these people are accustomed to working together ethically, accurately and effectively to communicate advances in science and medicine.

But there are other concerned people and organisations that are keen to foster quality in the reporting of health information, particularly when reported in the lay media. Some of the organisations have previously been name checked by Medical Librarian blogger David Rothman. Given that David has just updated his post: Evaluating health journalism, I thought it would be a good opportunity to summarise the information he’s collected, and to review some of the tips and resources these concerned organisations give for improving the reporting of scientific and clinical studies.

People and organisations concerned about quality in health journalism
The NHS has a guide to evaluating the health news stories, “Behind the Headlines”, which is provided by the NHS Knowledge Service (Bazian is the company that evaluates the stories for the NHS).
Dr Alicia White at Bazian has produced a handy document for lay readers “How to read articles about health and healthcare”. Some of the points made in the article are probably equally pertinent for those writing health stories both for lay and for professional audiences as for those reading the stories. Her points include:
• Is the health claim in the story based on scientific evidence?
• Be wary of health stories based on conference abstracts
• If an article is based on research done in animals or cell lines, be wary because it may not translate to humans
• Was the study well designed (was there a control group?) and large enough to be taken seriously?
• Be wary if the headline of the story is not a primary outcome of the study
• Check who sponsored the study (everyone has an agenda)

The Health News Review is a website dedicated to improving the accuracy of news stories about medical treatments, tests, products and procedures, and helping consumers evaluate the evidence for and against new ideas in health care. The publisher of the website is Professor Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota health journalism programme. Health News Review promotes the ABCs of health journalism:
• Accuracy
• Balance
• Completeness
In addition, the website includes a handy “Journalist Toolkit”, featuring “Things you should know about medical research stories”, including a list of words you should avoid in medical stories (e.g. “cure”, “miracle” and “breakthrough”). Other sections of the toolkit include similar advice to that in Alicia White’s article, such as being wary about stories from conferences/medical meetings and sponsored studies, advice on statistics (number needed to treat and absolute versus relative risk in particular) and warnings about over-interpreting the significance of laboratory studies. There are also useful sections on medical devices, the phases of clinical studies and reporting on unapproved/unlicensed drugs.

Media doctor aims to improve standards of journalism as they apply to specific topic media coverage of new medical drugs and treatments. Reading between the lines, tips for reporting from this website are that writers/journalists should ensure that, when possible, all important information associated with new treatments are reported, including benefits, harms, costs, adverse effects, availability and conflict of interest.

Other organisations concerned about standards in healthcare journalism are the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, which have got together to produce the website: The aims of this site are to “provide the public and health professionals with authoritative and independent commentaries from leading medical experts on articles or news items which appear in our daily media (nationally and internationally) in an attempt to reduce the confusion which can often arise from conflicting, incomplete or misleading media reports of medical areas.”

According to Media doctor, a tip sheet that is widely used and recommended by health reporters is one developed by Ray Moynihan for the Commonwealth Fund. This provides “a selection of questions which may assist reporters in choosing directions in their research”, and can be accessed at: The questions on the list include the (now) familiar questions that probe the study design and statistical relevance of the results and the side effects related to the treatment/device. However, there are also questions about the natural history of the disease to be treated, cost effectiveness and current alternative treatments for the disease.

The Association of Health Care Journalists (a US organisation) believe journalists have a special responsibility in covering health and medical news. Their “Statement of Principles” provides a guide to the responsibilities of health care journalists and covers a range of issues from plagiarism and balanced reporting to language (reiterating that words like “miracle” and “victim” should be avoided) and recognising that for most stories someone will have an agenda they will be trying to promote: “many vested interests reside among government health spokespersons, researchers, universities, drug companies, device manufacturers, providers, insurers and so on”.

Finally, no mention of quality in healthcare/science reporting, or of those concerned about it, would be complete without a mention of Dr Ben Goldacre. Ben Goldacre at (and in his Guardian column) keeps an eye on reporting that misrepresents the original data, twists statistics, includes data from poorly designed studies or makes unsubstantiated claims for products and molecules. See Ben’s interview with regarding his comments on improving science reporting. Like the Association of Health Care Journalists, he stresses that those reporting scientific data have a responsibility … in his view, to question the data. Just reading his critiques should make us all think twice and strive for quality when we are writing about health and science. Imagine ending up ridiculed in his column.

Summary of those concerned about quality in health journalism and resources

NHS Knowledge Service’s “Behind the headlines
and the company supplying “Behind the headlines”

Health News Review

Media doctor

Tipsheet for reporting on drugs, devices and medical technologies

Association of Healthcare Journalists Statement of Principles

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science


Entry filed under: Biotech, Health, Healthcare reporting, journalism, Medical writing, Medicine, NHS, Pharmaceutical, Science writing, Writing tools, tips and updates.

The Medical Communicating Network UPDATED: Hot off the press from the Royal College of Physicians

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David  |  February 4, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Great post! Much better than own! 🙂

  • 2. renshaw01  |  February 4, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    You’re very kind David. I was trying to do something a bit different to you and make it practical for writers. May be I should have focussed more on the tips…

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