Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

Director’s Corner: A Beautiful Brain – in Memory of David R. Colman (1949 – 2011).

June 2011

                       Dr. Colman was the Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute.

Last June I sat in David Colman’s office – having accepted his invitation for a private tour of  “the Neuro”.

Had I known he had less than a year to live, how much longer I would have lingered!

There was so much more I had hoped to learn from him, so much more he had to give – not just to the world of science and medicine – that loss is inestimable – but also to the world of writing and philosophy.

Dr. Colman’s unexpected death this month has left a surprising emptiness in me – I only ever met the man once. But his monthly blog musings (Director’s Corner, which he called his “monthly opportunity to vent”), and our occasional e-mail exchanges gave me insight and inspiration, as I’m sure they did for many.

A busy agenda had been arranged for me that day at the Neuro – yet our conversation was unhurried, drifting easily from current affairs, to the new iPad, to multiple sclerosis and myelin. He scribbled diagrams on my notepad, explaining the complexities of his research on cancer metastasis, and finally, as I moved reluctantly towards the door, photos of his daughters, one of them the same age as my own, turned our conversation to parenting. Continue reading

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June 11, 2011 Posted by | Medical Writing, Neurology | , | 1 Comment

New Evidence for Blood Clots With the Pill. Will Canadian Ob/Gyn Group Revise its Guidelines on Drospirenone?

April 26, 2011

By Kate Johnson

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) has a chance to redeem itself and make good on its controversial new contraceptive guidelines.

As I wrote in my last post, the guidelines are tainted with undisclosed conflicts of interest, calling their recommendations into question.

Now, two new studies in the British Medical Journal have made the guidelines redundant – presenting the SOGC with a rare opportunity to correct its mistakes (BMJ 2011;340:d2151 and BMJ 2011;340:d2139). Continue reading

April 27, 2011 Posted by | Contraception, Health policy, medical ethics, Medical Writing, Pharmaceutical industry, Women's Health | , , , , | 1 Comment

Can you Trust the Latest Canadian Contraceptive Guidelines? “The Bayer Facts” are Revealing in Their Omission.

April 4, 2011

By Kate Johnson

If it wasn’t for “the Bayer facts”, the new contraceptive guidelines from the Canadian Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (SOGC) would be rather underwhelming.

But stripped down they are alarmingly revealing: “an egregious example of the extreme,” according to Dr. Allan Sniderman, a McGill University cardiology professor who has called for widespread medical guideline reform. Continue reading

April 4, 2011 Posted by | health journalism, medical ethics, Medical Writing, Pharmaceutical industry, Uncategorized, Women's Health | , , , , | 3 Comments

Canadian Contraceptive Guidelines Shun Disclosure

By Kate Johnson

As published April 4, 2011 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal – full story

April 4, 2011 Posted by | health journalism, medical ethics, Medical Writing, Pharmaceutical industry, Uncategorized, Women's Health | , , , | Leave a comment

Journalism failure? Autism-vaccine story represents a triumph of journalism.

January 12, 2011

By Kate Johnson

How ironic that people like Neil Cameron blame the vaccine-autism mess on journalism, when it was actually a journalist who first blew the whistle on Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study.

At a time when science journalists are struggling to retain their foothold let’s not forget the conclusion of the autism-vaccine debacle.

Medicine is a highly specialized field that calls for specialized journalists who can critically assess and examine scientific studies. Such journalists are a dying breed as media outlets downsize and health sections dwindle. New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently said science coverage is “basically going out of business” – which means the public must rely on non-specialized journalists to navigate the medical literature. While they do their best, how can such journalists know the intricacies of a field that science journalists spend an entire career learning? Continue reading

January 12, 2011 Posted by | autism, health journalism, Medical Writing, Parenting | Leave a comment

Patients’ Association of Canada Aims for Change “at the Interface” of Patients and Healthcare.

January 10, 2011

By Kate Johnson

The Patients’ Association of Canada is gearing up for its official launch next month and I’ll be watching with interest to see what kind of spin they put on their message. Without a doubt, a group that aims to add the patient voice to healthcare policy debate is filling a gaping void. The question is whether PAC’s voice will simply join the throng or whether it will trigger change. Continue reading

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Health policy, Medical Writing | 1 Comment

Saving Science Journalism

July 8, 2010

By Kate Johnson

I always love to see a journalist speaking into a microphone rather than holding one – especially in the context of a scientific meeting. That’s why science journalist Steve Silberman fuelled my delight earlier this week with his address to the very cool-sounding “Raz Lab” workshop.

The Raz Lab, run by Dr. Amir (– you-guessed it) Raz, is part of the Institute for Community and Family Psychiatry and Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. I didn’t attend the workshop – which was intended for international researchers with expertise in the placebo effect – but Silberman’s address was open to the public and it’s been on my calendar for weeks.

Silberman made a splash last fall with an article about the placebo effect that he wrote for Wired. That alone would have been enough to get me out, despite the Montreal heatwave. But what really piqued my curiosity was that he had been chosen to speak to a caste of scientists, AND in addition to talking about his research on placebos he was also going to tell them about the importance of science writing. Continue reading

July 8, 2010 Posted by | health journalism, Medical Writing, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Lab to Headlines – the Science/Media Collaboration

Published in the June 2010 Journal of the American Medical Writers Association

By Kate Johnson

Bench to Bedside to Breakfast News

June 11, 2010 Posted by | health journalism, Medical Writing | , | 2 Comments

Scanning the Scrum at the Association of Health Care Journalists. News and Navel-Gazing Challenges for Journalists and Scientists Alike.

April 26, 2010

By Kate Johnson

I got to head out of town for the Association of Health Care Journalists’ (AHCJ) meeting last week in Chicago. It was great to connect with so many other people who do what I do – or a version of it.

And there was an interesting mix of news and navel-gazing – the latter being of particular interest to me.

Despite the buzz about the first two big name speakers – both of them fizzled on the podium. Oddly, I thought it was an excellent way to kick off the meeting because it underscored a fundamental issue facing health and medical journalism. Continue reading

April 27, 2010 Posted by | health journalism, Medical Writing | , | 1 Comment

The Media and Medical Miscommunication

February 25, 2010

By Kate Johnson

In the loud noise that echoed worldwide after the Lancet’s stunning retraction of Andrew Wakefield’s controversial paper on the autism/MMR vaccine link, there was an equally stunning whisper from the journal’s editor Dr. Richard Horton, that is still bouncing around disagreeably in my head.

In a nutshell, it was a cloaked threat to the public’s right to know.

“The lesson we’ve learned is that anything we publish will be picked up and used. It certainly made us much more risk-averse, much more conservative,” he told National Public Radio.

“We now try to be even more cautious about the kinds of work we publish, recognizing that you cannot have a closed discussion in the scientific community about anything today. Everything is accessible to everybody, at any time.”

Yes, he acknowledged the journal’s mistake in publishing the fraudulent paper. In fact, he called it a “system failure”. “We failed, I think the media failed, I think government failed, I think the scientific community failed,” he said.

But then he dropped the “too much information” bomb. Continue reading

February 25, 2010 Posted by | health journalism, Medical Writing | , | 1 Comment