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How patients are harmed by misleading media messages

How patients are harmed by misleading media messages

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No journalist – and certainly no health care journalist – rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, “How can I go in to work today and screw up and hurt people?”  But the harm from misleading media messages about health care – unintentional though it may be – is still very real.

In our podcast series on, we’ve started to provide a forum for smart patients and patient advocates to tell their own stories about the harm that can occur from inaccurate, imbalanced or incomplete health care media messages.

The sister-in-law of a man with glioblastoma (brain cancer) told how he was jerked around on a roller coaster ride of emotion – first being told of a “breakthrough” drug but then learning that it hadn’t even been tested in humans. It was all because of a shoddy PR news release. 

The founder of a rare disease foundation – for primary ciliary dyskinesia – directed her anger at a medical journal, which published an article headline that spread excitement through the patient community – unwarranted excitement in her eyes.  She had to temper peoples’ enthusiasm because of what the journal headline – and some subsequent media coverage - did not reveal.

And a woman who has had migraines for 50 years – and who is now a migraine patient advocate and educator – was “pissed off” as she says – by misleading TV news that spread across the country about a “new migraine treatment.”

We’re trying to put a human face and voice to these harms. Each of these episodes involved a relatively simple misstatement or communications glitch that could have been easily prevented, fixed or overcome. 

We who write news releases and news stories about health care should keep real people like these folks in mind before we hit “send” or “publish.” If we don’t, we may hurt more people than we help – mislead more than we inform.

(All of our podcasts are archived here. We’ve done profiles of standout health care journalists Christie Aschwanden and John Fauber, and featured interviews with leading researchers such as Drs. Otis Brawley, Laura Esserman and John Ioannidis.)

[Photo by Patrick Breitenbach via Flickr.] 


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THANK YOU & please consider a future interview with Dr. Lars Aaning too. He has done so much for patients in many ways. Here is a recent Yankton County Press (SD) article----- Physicians Don’t Squeal On Physicians According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, physicians are obligated to disclose their errors to patients. But that duty does not cover those made by other physicians, and in a recent ProPublica study over half of interviewed physicians knew of an error made by a colleague during the past year. Most of these mistakes were never reported: “it’s a common problem.” Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America and according to ProPublica only 1% are ever reported. Identifying the root cause of any event that harms patients is the first step in modifying care to prevent harming another patient, and when that opportunity is lost or denied the problem becomes repetitive. So why are physicians loathe to report another physician’s error? The primary reason for this code of silence - the Mafia call it omerta - is that, with a few exceptions, reporting another physician’s mistakes leaves one vulnerable to retribution. “They’ll figure out a way to get back at you!” If the physician being reported is a “high earner”, the hospital will usually side with him and defend him, while turning their protected peer review processes on the reporting physician, who suddenly finds himself shunned and may have his own practice investigated. If the reporting physician is really determined to expose an error involving another physician or, worse yet, the hospital itself, that physician will probably be labeled “disruptive” - code for a physician being readied for dis-employment or de-credentialing for not toeing the corporate line. A chart review follows and usually reveals enough “cause” for psychological testing, reduction of privileges, and ultimate reporting to the National Practitioners data Bank as well as the state licensing board. So medicine and its laboratory, the hospital, are not like science - which thrives on discoveries made as a result of examining mistakes and errors.


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