National Physicians Alliance

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Donate – a watchdog on health care news

Posted by Simone Isadora Flynn, PhD, NPA Project Manager-Leveraging Social Media February 19, 2014 at 7:34 PM

I welcome the chance to tell NPA members a bit more about my health news watchdog service, NPA President Dr. Jim Scott and NPA Vice President of Communications Dr. Mark Ryan have welcomed this post given the common goals between the work of NPA and our work.

I’ve been a health care journalist for 40 years. Now I do critical journalism reviews about health care journalism.

Every day for nearly 8 years, I led a team of journalists, physicians, and patients – all trained in the evaluation of medical evidence – in grading U.S. news organizations on how they report on new treatments, tests, products and procedures. We have shown a clear pattern of news stories that emphasize or exaggerate potential benefits, minimize or totally ignore potential harms, and ignore cost issues. On our blog, I also comment on health care advertising, marketing and public relations messages. The potential cumulative impact of these media messages on Americans who become patients, on primary care physicians who see them as patients, on individual decision-making and on public policy-making could be enormous.

Our review criteria address these questions:

  • Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?
  • Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the intervention?
  • Does the story adequately quantify the harms of the intervention?
  • Does the story explore the quality of the evidence?
  • Does the story commit disease-mongering?
  • Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest in sources?
  • Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?
  • Does the story establish the availability of the intervention?
  • Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?
  • Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Between 60-70% of stories we’ve reviewed got unsatisfactory scores on the costs, benefits and harms criteria. And that’s from journalism – before you even begin to scrutinize media messages from advertisers, marketing and public relations people.

Unfortunately, our 8 years of funding from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation in Boston (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation co-founded by Dartmouth’s Jack Wennberg), ended last July. So, for now at least, I’m unable to pay the terrific team of people who once contributed to this project. I continue to look for new funding sources, but while I ride out that storm, there’s an opportunity for NPA members to make a significant contribution to this effort. You could:

  • Submit a guest blog post about health care media messages that you see – good or bad – or about the influence media messages have on patients you see.
  • Volunteer to do some of the systematic story reviews that we’ve now abandoned until we find new funding. If we find enough volunteer occasional contributors, we can resurrect this service and add to the database of story reviews that now numbers nearly 1,900. I can train you via email and phone. I’d turn to you infrequently – no more than once a month.
  • If you don’t have time for either of the above, just send me ideas that I can write about.

Take a look at our website. If any of this sounds appealing, email me at and I’ll follow up with you.

Thanks for your interest.

Gary Schwitzer is Publisher of, a media watchdog project that has reviewed thousands of media messages on health care in the past 8 years. At the University of Minnesota, he taught health journalism and media ethics for 9 years, and is now Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Public Health. Gary worked in television news for 15 years – half at CNN. For the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), he wrote the group’s Statement of Principles and “Covering Medical Research: Guide for Reporting on Studies.” He speaks every year at the AHCJ annual conference, at the NIH Medicine in the Media workshop, and at the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT Medical Evidence Boot Camp. He has carried his message internationally, giving talks in Canada, England, Spain, Finland, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and China.

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