On Gary Schwitzer’s website healthnewsreview.org, a debate about the role of physicians who work as journalists took place. It was sparked by an NBC News report on the changing of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to its new name—Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID).
The report featured commentary by Dr. Natalie Azar, a rheumatologist and NBC News medical contributor. Mr. Schwitzer felt that since Dr. Azar treated patients with the disease, she had a conflict of interest because she was “being paid to be a journalist talking about what she was paid to do in her day job.”
Dr. Shara Yurkiewicz, a recent medical school graduate who is doing a journalism internship at MedPage Today, commented on Mr. Schwitzer’s post and asked, if not a rheumatologist, what sort of doctor is appropriate to discuss SEID?
Mr. Schwitzer drew an ethical distinction between an unpaid medical source, who could legitimately provide an opinion vs a contributor, who should only present the facts.
I watched the clip of the NBC story. Although Dr. Azar said a couple of debatable things about treating SEID, I was not impressed that she was biased in any way. It didn’t say where she practiced or what her office phone number was.
As a doctor and former freelance medical reporter for a major medical news organization, I have some thoughts. Whether the reporter is a doctor or not, biases and opinions can creep into any story.
Say a non-physician reporter is asked to write about a paper on a controversial new surgical technique. She can influence the story’s tone by not only the type of questions she asks the paper’s author but also who she chooses as a source to comment.
If a proponent of the new procedure is selected as a source, the story will have a different slant than if the reporter asks a skeptic.
Since every network now has one or more physician contributors, it makes more sense to me that the physician should be someone who is an expert in the topic being discussed.
For example, I don’t want to hear a urologist discuss vaccines [go to 00:45 of the video]. Regarding herpes zoster (shingles), the urologist says, “It usually appears on some sort of muscle surface.” Huh? It appears on the skin in the distribution of a nerve.
And there’s a classic from a general internist who unsuccessfully tries to explain a cardiac stent procedure. The video of the doctor, who tries to open the stent’s plastic package by biting it, is priceless, but to no one’s surprise, it has been taken down. The full story can be found on cardiologist Wes Fisher’s blog.
Maybe people who read the news on television aren’t really journalists, and maybe TV news doctors aren’t either.
Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel.