Where health and journalism education meet

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Menachem Wecker examines the proliferation of health-focused programs at journalism schools across the country, many of which are affiliated with medical schools and/or medical institutions, and how they may or may not benefit both journalists and health professionals.

This recent influx of programs has raised questions from journalists and doctors about the degree to which the collaborations benefit medical and journalism students. Some say that M.D.’s can help journalists better understand the health beat, while others prescribe a “healthy ignorance,” rather than medical school credentials, to reporters. Others say that aspiring physicians can improve their bedside interactions with and empathy for patients by studying journalism.

Wecker writes that while, according to AHCJ treasurer and Reuters Health executive editor Ivan Oransky, M.D., a medical degree appears to have become almost a requirement for broadcast health journalists, there are big-picture views and tools of the trade that those with an exclusively medical education may struggle with. Here, Wecker quotes former AHCJ board member Andrew Holtz, M.P.H.:

“I often compare asking a doctor about health policy to asking an auto mechanic about transportation policy. Maybe they have something useful to say, but it is generally not from what they learned in their training program,” he says.

Peter Fiske, author of the recent article “Unleash Your Inner Dummy” on the website of the journal Nature, says a reporter with less health expertise may find it easier to connect with readers despite the increasing complexity of the medical field.

And, given the difficulty of explaining health to a lay audience, the exchange goes both ways, Wecker writes. Several of his sources, journalists and medical professionals alike, suggested that it might not hurt physicians to improve their communication skills and media savvy.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed Fiske’s comments to Holtz. We apologize for the error.

5 thoughts on “Where health and journalism education meet

  1. Lisa Stansbury

    A mechanic commenting on transportation policy is the analogy to physicians reporting on healthcare policy? I’m not a doctor, but I am chagrined and embarrassed by this defensive, foolish and ignorant comment. Just read Dr. Atul Gawande’s posts in the New York Times and tell me a physician can’t be a health care policy journalist — probably one of the best I’ve ever read.

    On a more positive note, thank you for this topic. I educate the public as a communications director for a Medicare quality improvement organization. I work closely with and respect my health care reporter colleagues. They rely on me for information and I work hard to serve their needs. We have a great working relationship — and it helps the public get healthier.

  2. Sean P. Carr

    Ms. Stansbury’s comment missed an important point Ivan made: “Maybe they have something useful to say, but it is generally not from what they learned in their training program.” Clearly, he said that doctors CAN be good health communicators, just not becasue of their training.

    I don’t know him personally, but I’m pretty sure Ivan Oransky, M.D. believes doctors sometimes make good health writers.

  3. Andrew Holtz

    The point of the story and of my comment was medical school training and whether it is potentially valuable to people who write about health. Indeed, many physicians have valuable perspectives on health care and health policy, but the point of medical school is to teach students about treating individual patients, not about health care financing or even much about public health… just as the point of an auto mechanics program is to teach students about fixing cars… not about whether to add lanes to a freeway or increase mass transit in a congested region. And yet those bigger policy questions are at the center of reporting about health or transportation.

    Look at what Dr. Gawande wrote about health care in McAllen, Texas. How much overlap is there between the content of his New Yorker article and the class material in medical school?

    When I shadowed residents here at OHSU for my book “The Real Grey’s Anatomy,” I was struck by how often these young doctors were dumbfounded by the problems they faced managing the care of their patients… because they were running head first into health care financing and other systems issues that weren’t included in their schooling. They had crammed to learn the Krebs cycle, but hadn’t had a single class about how to get a patient with little or no insurance into a skilled nursing facility.

  4. Lisa Stansbury

    Well, my comment certainly wasn’t very kind, was it? Ugh. I shouldn’t have been so harsh. The comment sprung from a deep seated belief that Dr. Gawande’s work in health policy and journalism has revolutionized medicine in the same way that The Washington Post stories on Watergate revolutionized political reporting. (I’m not suggesting the same kind of cover-ups, just the same courage in the face of public disbelief and denial.) He’s a doc, and he deserves a medal from health care journalists, in my humble opinion. (Heck, maybe you’ve already given him one!)

    But to your points of the story focus on physician education, I assume you are correct re: the training. Public health policy education is a topic than any of us in the field could benefit from. I work with physicians who have gone on to get MHAs and MPH degrees along with their MD degree. ( I don’t know what percentage of the physician population this represents.) I would love to know that health care journalists are doing the same. I’m tempted to draw a similar critical comparison as structured in the original blog post — “does learning AP style give journalists the background they need to intelligently report on the topic that drives 26% of the national budget?” (all said with a smile!)

    Again, thank you for the opportunity to comment and the additional dialogue.

    (PS, my comments are my own! They certainly don’t represent my employer’s point of view in any way.)

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