Assessing the News About Health – Notes from a Conversation with Gary Schwitzer

By tomsaint11, via Flickr.

By tomsaint11, via Flickr.

As promised, AJN’s editors met this morning with Gary Schwitzer, who runs He was kind enough to mention us shortly thereafter in a blog post that also noted he’d been meeting with folks at Consumer Reports this week about how they can more effectively assess health care and health care reform.

Some gleanings from our wide-ranging conversation with Schwitzer follow:

Asked what the major issues in health care reporting are right now, Schwitzer said that, after analyzing 780 stories from the major newspapers and networks that feed Americans their news on health care,  he and his colleagues have found that

  • “72% of stories fail to adequately address costs.”
  • “71% fail to adequately quantify benefits.”

About reporting on studies: there’s a bias, according to Schwitzer, in favor of publishing positive findings. These are often considered newsworthy. At the same time, journalists on deadline “are being asked to do more with less” and many aren’t getting properly trained to analyze stories taken off the wires.

Why isn’t Schwitzer’s data widely disseminated? For various reasons, including the fact that he’s a journalist by trade and not an MD, Schwitzer has had a hard time getting medical journals to publish his findings.

Many journalists, he said, are crossing a line into advocacy for treatments and medications. As well, few stories on new medications mention a drug’s number needed to treat, a crucial measure of a drug’s real effectiveness. Statistics can be very misleading without such essential perspective.

About the direct marketing of drugs, marketing that often gives consumers misleading information and snares them in catch-all nets of nonspecific symptoms: The ads are “demeaning the very real problems” of those who actually do have certain conditions.

So how has he stayed on this beat so long? He might not have, he says, but the fact that his wife and mother-in-law are nurses means he has regular reminders of how much getting the right information to consumers and health care providers really matters.

Schwitzer said a lot more, but we’ll stop there. He’s not all negative (in fact, it’s nearly always inspiring to meet someone devoted to quality and accuracy), but he’s definitely been accused of negativity more than once. He sees a lot of cause for hope in “new media,” in the way it organizes tools of analysis and spreads information, and he’s put together a list of “independent experts” (those who’ve sworn to have no financial conflicts of interest) that health journalists can consult upon request. We hope we’ll see him here again.

Jacob Molyneux, AJN senior editor

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Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

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