If you regularly cover medical studies, reaching out to different types of sources instead of just physicians, researchers and patients for example, can substantially enrich and enliven your reporting as well as provide context, precision, and accuracy. Here are four examples of sources you should include in your reporting.
Nurses, Nurse practitioners and physician assistants
The unsung heroes of health care — at least until recently, when they’ve been in the spotlight because of the pandemic — have always been nurses. However, nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are often more invisible than nurses in the media, despite the vital roles they play in the U.S. health care system.
Nurses, PAs and NPs who do get quoted in medical research stories are often the authors of the research. It’s less common to consult them otherwise, even though they may have insights that doctors or academic researchers wouldn’t think to mention. If you’re writing for consumers, consider reaching out to some of these professionals. They tend to spend more time with patients than doctors and may offer a different perspective on a study’s findings.
As vaccine hesitancy took center stage the past year, many people have heard surprising arguments against vaccines. I’ve seen far too many hot takes from journalists who have just discovered some anti-vaccine trope or line of reasoning that vaccine hesitancy researchers have been familiar with for decades.
But with the exception of 5G implants, I don’t think I’ve heard a single argument against COVID vaccines that wasn’t recycled in some form of arguments against the smallpox vaccine over 100 years ago, or against the polio vaccine half a century ago. (There’s probably one or two, but the most common ones are as old and familiar as dogs eating homework.) If you peruse newspapers from the 1890s, you’ll come across some anti-vaccine claims that have appeared almost verbatim on social media today. A medical historian would have told you that, along with a wealth of other interesting tidbits and helpful lessons that could enrich your reporting.
History also offers important context when it comes to pandemic behavior more broadly —including the perils of ignoring history when reporting on the pandemic, or assuming too much from history. But the same principle holds true for many other topics, from anesthesia to cardiology to mental health to health care disparities. A lecture I heard at the last American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists meeting shed light on Black maternal mortality that would have enhanced any of the many articles on the topic. And if there’s anyone who’s going to give you colorful anecdotes for a story, it’s a historian.
Sociologists and anthropologists
Despite scientists’ best efforts, culture will always seep into and influence how research is conducted and interpreted. No part of medicine or medical research is untouched by the society in which it occurs. Sociologists and medical anthropologists in particular can help you understand the human elements that play a role in all the numbers you’re reporting on.
Many researchers in the social sciences specialize in specific medical topics, but their articles are frequently found in journals covered less often than the major medical journals. Plenty of social science publications aren’t indexed in PubMed, so broaden your search when looking at research and do some searching to see whether a social scientist can offer insight on a topic you’re writing about, even if the bulk of it is “hard science.”
Biostatisticians are researchers and there’s usually at least one among the authors of medical studies. But unless the paper itself is explicitly about a biostatistical topic, they’re not often the corresponding, lead or senior author. If you want to know if the statistics of a study are sound, talk to an outside expert in biostatistics, not the one who worked on the paper.
Not sure where to find these medical professionals? Here are some places to start:
- STATS Check’s explicit purpose is to help journalists understand and accurately report on statistics.
- The American Statistical Association
- American Association for the History of Medicine
- Searching The Conversation for types of authors can often reveal interesting researchers and ideas.
- The International Society for Clinical Biostatistics
- American Sociological Association
- American Anthropological Association and the associated Society for Medical Anthropology
- American Nurses Association
- The American Association of Nurse Practitioners
- American Academy of PAs