Monday, May 18, 2009

I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV

Information about medicines produced by third parties such as journalists may constitute advertising, even though they have no connection with the product’s manufacturer or marketer, says a landmark European Court of Justice (ECoJ) ruling. (Pharma Times May 12)
This is disturbing for several reasons
It underscores our confusion about the appropriate roles for marketing, public health education and journalism. And it brings me preposterously full circle to the current domestic discussion about Merck's Vioxx marketing disguised as a medical journal. I didn't see the "Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine" -- in actuality a marketing brochure -- but it apparently fooled more than one physician.

Erosion of trust in journalism is one longterm result of hijinks like Merck's. The EU isn't alone; Susan Dentzer -- herself editor in chief of the policy journal Health Affairs -- bashed medical reporters in the Jan 1 NEJM. "Journalists reporting on health care developments deliver public health messages," she wrote and then proceeded to describe how badly they perform that task.

21st Century journalism
But IS that the job of medical reporters? What training do they have -- and what training is required? Health News Review has posted on this topic lately, disagreeing with a pretty TV doctor. Sure, she speaks soundbite! But her apparent ignorance of context undermines her credibility when she suggests that journalism training is gratuitous.

Full disclosure: I have journalism training. And yes, I'm aware of the irony that I'm posting this on a blog where I sometimes analyze medical research without the benefit of a medical degree.

Journalistic ethics
The EU distrusts the media but hey, it's not reporters who accept tens of thousands of dollars each year in pharma shwag. Dentzer is mistaken if she means to imply that coverage of health in the mass media is more reckless than coverage of other stories. The pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and the competition for the public's (limited) attention affect reporters from all beats and in most media. We can’t look to journalists to be heroes simply because as a society we don’t adequately fund public health communications efforts or because media literacy is lacking.

Is it too late to bring back the firewalls?
I recently attended a panel on healthcare advocacy and media in which all participants emphasized the importance of strong editorial firewalls. But user-generated content and other Health 2.0 activities challenge the clarity of those traditional divisions.

And let's not forget Mehmet Oz, MD, MBA. Last week millions of Americans watched as a half dozen people appeared with him on his last Oprah appearance, all with the message "Dr Oz, you saved my life!" E.g., "because I saw this TV show I suspected my mole was malignant" or "I got a colonoscopy (that caught early stage cancer)"etc. Until an expose reveals heinous ulterior motives, I choose to believe that Oz uses TV to educate the public.

There must be space for that -- as well as role for third party, accountable-to-the-public, financially independent reporting. Plus a different space for marketing and let's make room for patient voices while we're at it! We need them all: let's bring the blurry lines back into focus!

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