Some excellent questions for medical reporters

Having taken note of my little missive yesterday about New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope and her utter credulity towards the woo that is acupuncture, Dr. R. W. makes an observation:

A number of years ago I ran across Science Education in Preparation for the Ministry. The premise of the document, written by pathologist and teacher Ed Friedlander, MD, was that because members of the clergy are often called on to speak in areas where morality and ethics interface with science, they should have some prerequisite knowledge. Orac’s latest example of credulous and sloppy medical reporting in the New York Times got me to thinking that maybe there should be similar learning objectives for journalists.

An excellent idea, and Dr. R.W. has a list of some things that every medical journalist should know. My favorites? These:

  • Outline the scientific method. (I’m betting there are a lot of journalists out there reporting on medicine who can’t outline the scientific method.)
  • Explain why consideration of biologic plausibility is important in the evaluation of health claims and why evidence based medicine often fails when biologic plausibility is not taken into account. (This one is hard, but knowing the answer would eliminate a lot of truly ignorant articles like the one Parker-Pope wrote yesterday.)

Overall, it’s a good list, although the questions about Medicare’s prospective payment system belongs in the realm of the political and business, not in the realm of medicine. I could have done without that little political aside.

I humbly suggest that Dr. R. W. has missed at least one really, really important one:

Explain what placebo effects are and why placebo controls are so important, particularly for health outcomes with a large subjective component, like pain or anxiety. If I really wanted to be nasty, I’d insist on using certain acupuncture studies as the examples that the journalist must use to explain this.

In any case, let’s see what else we can come up with that every journalist covering medicine and science should know. Especially Tara Parker-Pope, who clearly needs a remedial class.