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Mainstream Media’s Sub-Par Health Coverage, Part 2

I recently wrote about an experience that I had with a reporter (Erica Mitrano) who interviewed me about energy healing at Calvert Memorial Hospital in southern Maryland. Erica was very friendly and inquisitive, and we had a nice conversation about the lack of scientific evidence supporting any energy healing modality. I thought it would be fun to post what we had discussed at SBM, and then wait to see what trickled down into the finished piece.

When the final article appeared I was very disappointed. Not only was I not quoted, but there was no skeptical counterpoint at all. The story read like an unquestioning endorsement of junk science, and I wondered if it was worth it to continue speaking to journalists to offer expert advice. It seemed to me that this experience was emblematic of all that’s wrong with health reporting these days. (Just ask Gary Schwitzer, who has recently given up on reviewing TV health stories in mainstream media since they are generally so inaccurate.)

But I want to apologize to Erica, because part of the problem in this case was her editors. The online version of her story was substantially different from her printed version –- and in this case the printed version was much more balanced. About one-third of an entire newspaper page (The Enterprise, Friday, February 19, 2010, St. Mary’s County, Maryland) was devoted to my counter arguments. Here’s a short excerpt:

“I’m honestly not aware of any scientific evidence that supports anything beyond the placebo effect with the energy healing modalities, including Reiki,” Jones said. “There is nothing we can measure that suggests there is a special force that needs to be balanced…”

Success stories are anecdotal and can generally be accounted for by a person getting better from something like an infection on his own. Patients tend to report success from energy work more often for subjective ailments, especially pain and emotional problems, she said…

Jones opposes untested therapies’ inclusion in hospitals.

“I think it’s misleading to the patients because they’re going to a hospital, they’re trusting the hospital will offer them treatments that have proof that they work and they don’t realize that these nurses are offering nonscientific therapies,” Jones said.

“I would rather that the nurses be given time to sit and talk to patients, go into the room and say, ‘Mrs. Smith, I’m sure you feel completely stressed out right now, and I don’t blame you.’ That would be more effective than concocting this pseudoscientific excuse for having nurses lay hands on people when really the patient needs a listening ear and a compassionate soul to talk to.”

But I think this case still serves as a reminder that traditional media’s approach to health story coverage can be flawed. Specifically, my concerns are these:

1. “Balance” – While I recognize the importance of impartiality in news reporting, the quest for balance can go too far. Some facts are incontrovertible, so regularly insisting that the truth is “somewhere in between” can be both misleading and dangerous.

2. Editing – Reporters can write an excellent piece of journalism that becomes nearly unrecognizable after their editors are finished with it.

3. Inability to crowd source – The advantage of blogs is that readers can correct the original article or add their valuable views. Without a community of virtual editors/contributors, any one news article is limited by the point of view and skills of the journalist.

4. Sensationalism – Mainstream media outlets are slaves to ratings and traffic. This means that they are under constant pressure to exaggerate the truth or misrepresent scientific research. Attention-grabbing headlines sell papers, and “good science makes bad television.” So readers must take what they read with a grain of salt.

5. Author credentials – Sadly, highly trained science journalists are being laid off in record numbers due to the economic realities of the failing newspaper business. Remaining writers often do not have the depth of experience to handle complicated health topics and do not represent important scientific nuances correctly.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Erica for the opportunity to weigh in on energy healing and apologize for any distress that my blog post (expressing my frustration with the apparent bias revealed in the final online article) may have caused her. I know that Erica received a pointed letter of complaint regarding the story because of my post. I think it’s a good thing that people care enough about bias and misinformation to send formal complaints because when those cease, we’ll be in serious trouble!

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*


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“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

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Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

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Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

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As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

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