Just Trying to do My Job

December 11, 2009

By Kate Johnson

Yesterday I posted a blog about how a TV station boosted the power of the British Medical Journal in making pharmaceutical giant Roche more accountable for questions about its antiviral drug oseltamivir  (Tamiflu).

I called this unusual partnership a giant leap for science because it achieved the goal of publicizing a problem in medical research.

Medical reporters and medical journals should have the same goals: namely to disseminate important medical information to a wider audience – be it the public, or the research community.

But unfortunately, I recently had the opposite experience with a medical journal.

A few weeks ago I attended a medical conference and heard an excellent presentation which I added to my list of articles to write for International Medical News Group.

I interviewed the researcher, and asked for her powerpoint slides– to make sure my article was accurate.

The next day she e-mailed me her apologies. She had attended a workshop on publication ethics delivered by the editors of a medical journal *.

“They informed me that I should not send you my slides and that this could jeopardize publication,” she wrote. “Clearly this is a difficult area. I’m happy to work with you on the article, but with this information, I feel I can’t send the slides.”

I wrote to the journal editors to register my complaint.Read More »

Should I Get the Shot? The H1N1 Vaccine Dilemma

By Kate Johnson  –   November 1, 2009

As a medical journalist in Montreal I’ve been fielding calls from friends and family in other parts of the country, asking my advice on whether they should get the H1N1 vaccine. While I am still waiting here, the decision is upon them.

I am not a doctor, I remind them. We’ve already heard our doctor’s advice, they say.

And yet they are still unsure. Why?

It has to do with trust.Read More »

Americans – if any of you don’t want your H1N1 shots, can we Canadians have them?

By Kate Johnson – October 17, 2009


Next week I head into the four-day World Congress on Diabetes in Montreal, where delegates will be sharing a lot more than just information. Spreading silently through the air ducts will be a variety of airborne viruses, including seasonal and H1N1 influenza. Some American, Australian and Chinese delegates will arrive fully vaccinated against these things, but I and my fellow Canadians remain unprotected.

Normally at this time of year I get the seasonal flu shot because I have asthma which often deteriorates into bronchitis or pneumonia. But this year no seasonal flu shot has materialized – and it may not be available until January, my neighborhood pharmacist tells me. Meanwhile, the H1N1 shot may be available in 2 or 3 weeks, according to the latest reports.

This doesn’t help me much.

Read More »

Spinning the Science: Big Pharma’s Not Alone.

By Kate Johnson – October  14, 2009

In just a few days Dr. Supachai Rerks-Ngarm, from Thailand’s Ministry of Health, and members of the U.S. Military will present their HIV vaccine study to their peers at the AIDS Vaccine conference in Paris.

It won’t be their first presentation of their findings, but they probably wish it was.

Their first presentation to the world’s media was a bit of a circus, that left many wishing the substance had matched the hype.

As a medical journalist I’ve seen my share of circus acts, and collected a whole folder of abandoned stories to show for it.

Read More »

Ghostwriting – from “The Inside”: Outrage Hinges on Unclear Definitions

Ghostwriting from “The Inside” : Outrage Hinges on Unclear Definitions

By Kate Johnson

The Journal of the American Medical Association’s latest revelation of ghostwriting within its own pages and those of other top medical journals should come as no surprise to most medical academics. 

Why then the outrage from the general public?

My view “from the inside” reveals some glaring discrepancies in our understanding of the definition of authorship.Read More »

Caster Semenya: Sex and Gender – When the Twain Don’t Meet

By Kate Johnson

My heart goes out to Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African sprinter who just dashed the 800m world record only to have her self-identity rocked to its foundations by a worldwide question mark of her femaleness.images

There she is in the sports section of my newspaper – flat-chested, rippled abs and all – looking every bit a man.

The doubts have followed her most of her life, apparently. But she and her family have always dismissed them. “That’s the way God made her,” they have said. And Semenya herself has apparently lightheartedly offered to drop her pants to quell the rumours.

But jokes aside, this is now serious business.

A world record has been made, a gold medal awarded, and other women have been left her in dust. Complaints have been made, tests have been ordered, and the whole world waits voyeuristically for the news that will no doubt rock her world.Read More »

Mind Power

First published on my iVillage Health Beat blog.

Mind Power

Though the sun has set on Earth Day we mustn’t forget the importance of harnessing Nature’s sustainable resources. One resource that is not usually considered in this category is the Power of the Mind. As a medical journalist, I rarely report on energy issues – but mindpower is a resource in need of development.

Like so many others, I was inspired by the power of meditation as described by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love (www.elizabethgilbert.com/eatpraylove.htm). We know that the brainpower we harness is just a minute tip of the iceberg, and that most features of our remarkable mental machines remain untapped and wasted.

This week, as I attend the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, it is inspiring to know that experts in this field of medicine are teaching patients how to focus their mindpower towards overcoming illness. From stress reduction to problem eating, to cancer, meditation is being used to literally calm the soul and fuel the cure.

One form of meditation known as Mindfulness/Receptive Meditation has shown impressive results, simply by encouraging patients to become aware of the moment, the here and now. For people struggling with obesity, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Therapy promotes awareness of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues.

At the Center for Mindful Eating (www.tcme.org), psychologist Jean Kristeller encourages silence for at least part of a mealtime, to promote awareness and enjoyment of food. In the frenzy of most days many families rarely eat with this type of awareness and therefore often miss the cues of fullness and satisfaction. Daily eating awareness meditations outside of mealtimes can also help shift thought patterns away from bad eating habits and kick-start a fresh approach based on awareness, she says.

Even in the context of life-threatening illness, mindfulness-based meditation can harness healing in impressive ways. The Tom Baker Cancer Centre (Canadian spelling) at the University of Calgary has been using this approach for more than a decade and shown improvements in cancer patients’ immune function, stress hormones, mood and quality of life. These types of results boost survival, says Linda Carlson, a psychoncologist at the center. But although it’s simple, “it’s not easy,” she warns. Quieting the mind and calming the soul is a monumental challenge which requires lifelong practice, as Elizabeth Gilbert’s book so articulately describes. And though we may struggle with this, our children face an even steeper challenge.

For those of us who remember a time before internet or cell phones, the memory of solitude, silence and concentration is real. I remember, and have stayed in touch with that part of my brain that can focus – quietly. But for our children, who text while they Facebook and watch television, the noise may be overwhelming. — KJ


Can You Think Pain Away? Some Experts Say Yes.

First published on my iVillage Health Beat blog.

The Mind-Body Connection

My husband comes from a long line of herniated disks. Two of them are painfully present in his own spine, and several others have shown up in the spines of his father and brothers. Breaking free from genetic inevitability, my husband is the only family member to refuse spinal surgery – so far. He prefers a sometimes stubborn approach which involves living with what he feels is an acceptable level of constant pain, spending liberally on osteopathic and athletic therapy, pursuing high-level athletic goals which force him to stay fit, and swallowing a very large daily dose of denial along with his ibuprofen. While the rest of his afflicted family members submitted to the knife by the time they hit 30, my husband has reached his mid-40’s and still refuses it. But this week he’s bad.  This week, as a result of his latest sports championship, he is now struggling to walk, bend down, and even turn his head. Coincidentally, this week I am also attending the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. As a medical journalist, I track the trends, interview the experts, and write about the latest new in most fields of medicine. As I absorb what’s new at this meeting I keep thinking of my husband, who is a perfect example of the interaction of behavior with health – the cornerstone of behavioral medicine. Refusing a recommended surgery because it did too little to help his family members, his attitude is to live life to its fullest until the herniated discs force him to slow down. As it turns out, this is actually a recommended therapy in behavioral medicine. Indeed, the treatment of illness and relief of symptoms should not be simply a matter of finding and eliminating the cause, Fred Friedberg told me today. As a clinical psychologist, associate professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and a specialist in treating medically unexplained illnesses, Dr. Friedberg knows a lot about healing patients without knowing the cause of their pain. In his latest book he explains how he helps patients with chronic fatigue syndrome  and fybromyalgia  relax, reduce the stress in their life, and accept their limitations. Despite no medical explanation for their illnesses, and no cure, he can promote healing attitudes which bring them relief. And, being himself a chronic fatigue syndrome patient, he presumably knows what he’s talking about. Dr. Friedberg agrees that whether there is a medical explanation for pain or not, the mind/body connection is an important one for relieving symptoms and improving a person’s quality of life. As for my husband, there may be some faulty connections in his spinal cord, but so far he’s managed to keep going with his home-made version of behavior therapy. –KJ