Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

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

Star Wars Chemotherapy: Nanotechnology Pushes New Frontiers in Pediatric Cancer.

April 20, 2010

By Kate Johnson

If I was a kid with cancer I’d invite Dr. Noah Federman to be the opening performance at my next birthday party. Dr. Federman is a pediatric oncologist, and Director of the Pediatric Bone and Soft Tissue Sarcoma Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital, UCLA – and while he uses a great deal of very sophisticated vocabulary that would fly right over the heads of my guests, he seems like the type who could make the necessary adjustments to fit his audience.

If I was the mother of a kid with cancer, Dr. Federman would be more than welcome at my kid’s party. Hearing him speak about nanotechnology at the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology I could picture a room full of sick kids and their parents drawing hope from his journey into deeper frontiers in cancer medicine.

I’m neither a kid with cancer nor the mother of one. What’s more I was probably the only non-scientist attending Dr. Federman’s talk. Perhaps it was this view “from the outside” that enabled me to see his potential as a birthday party performer. Continue reading

April 20, 2010 Posted by | Oncology, Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Teenage Wisdom. Eleven years with Celiac Disease: The blessings and the burden

Guest blog by my daughter Melanie, age 13. Written for her public speaking assignment at school.

I’d like to tell you a story about a little girl who had her heart broken when she was only two years old.  This is a story about me, and don’t worry, it has a happy ending.

Ever since I knew how to walk, I had a tradition with my dad. We would walk up our street to the neighborhood patisserie, and sit in the sun to eat croissants.  It was my absolute favorite thing to do. I even had a nickname for the owner of the patisserie, I called her the “con-con lady”, because I didn’t know how to say croissant.

One day , my mum told me that, from now on, I couldn’t go to the patisserie anymore. I cried, and cried, and my mum even started crying with me.

About 6 months before this happened, I was getting very sick. I was throwing up a lot, and was crying much more than usual. And I was tired all the time. In fact, some of the first words I ever spoke were “sick”, “tired”, and “bed”. Continue reading

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Celiac Disease, Parenting, Psychology | , | 5 Comments

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

TV Doctor/Reporters Cause Ethical Rumblings, but the Fault Line is Health Illiteracy

January 22, 2010

By Kate Johnson

The earthquake in Haiti has delivered a different sort of seismic upheaval in the fields of both medicine and journalism, as professionals in both camps debate the ethics in the niche zone where their respective crafts overlap. Television MDs like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Richard Besser have helped deliver babies and stitch up injuries with the cameras rolling, creating rumblings and debates about the blurring of journalistic and medical boundaries.

With journalistic clarity, The Society of Professional Journalists issued an unambiguous scolding: “Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said in a statement.

Characteristically, the American Medical Association was less specific and more cautious in urging restraint: “The spontaneous volunteer has no place in disaster response,” asserted James J. James, MD, DrPH, MHA, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response, at an American Medical Association (AMA) webinar.

But still, the television networks -– including ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN –- are milking the coverage of their physician reporters for all it’s worth.

Continue reading

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Medical Journalists – Where are They (We) Going?

January 8, 2010

By Kate Johnson

It’s cold and snowy in Montreal and the other day, as I was skiing down a crusty slope, icy crystals stinging my eyeballs, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t help it. When sharp objects fly into your cornea, your lashes instinctively close – even if you are hurtling down an icy hill at top speed. I could have had a catastrophic crash (such things do happen in the blink of an eye), but I followed my blind instinct, and everything was fine. And even before my eyes had re-opened I realized, that this is what I – and many other journalists are doing right now, everyday, in our careers.

Winter has descended on the age-old profession of journalism, changing the landscape so drastically that all the landmarks are gone. Little remains of the theories and ground rules I studied for my journalism degree. “The business” as I knew it when I started out 23 years ago has transformed beyond anyone’s wildest predictions, “undergoing a level of change that presents both unprecedented peril and possibility”, according to health journalism expert Gary Schwitzer.

Continue reading

January 9, 2010 Posted by | health journalism, Medical Writing | , | 2 Comments

Infertility is Many Losses

December 31, 2009                                                                  Also published on iVillage:

By Kate Johnson

“There is a residue of experience in life that continues to shape us long after the actual experience has ended. We stretch and grow and learn a lot while living through it. Then we learn a little more after we’ve had some distance. We carry from such experiences indelible memories, and if it was a particularly bad experience there’s usually some unfinished business.”

So writes Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos in her book Silent Sorority the story of her journey through infertility, and finally her coming to terms with childlessness. At 46, Pamela is two years older than me. Like me, she is coming to the end of her reproductive years, which for both of us were scarred by infertility treatments and failures.

I have never met Pamela, but she contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to read her book. I doubt she knew my story.

Over my years of infertility I have honed my journalistic skills into an expertise in reproductive medicine – writing for both physicians and the public. But I rarely write about my personal battle. Continue reading

December 31, 2009 Posted by | Fertility | , | 5 Comments

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. Continue reading

December 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Big Pharma and the Media: Reporters should work with Medical Journals for More Accountability

December 10, 2009

By Kate Johnson

The media is more often criticized than praised when it comes to reporting health and medical stories, but one recent example highlights an important role for the media in the field of medicine.

The pharmaceutical giant Roche is facing pressure from the medical community about accountability  – and the media is playing a valuable role.

This week, the British Medical Journal published a string of articles, an editorial, and an account of a media/medical journal investigation that “cast doubt not only on the effectiveness and safety of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) but on the system by which drugs are evaluated, regulated, and promoted,” writes Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the BMJ. Continue reading

December 10, 2009 Posted by | medical ethics, Medical Writing | , , | 3 Comments

Mammography Screening – Are the Harms worth the Benefits?

November 16, 2009

By Kate Johnson

As I reported today, decisions about breast cancer screening just got tougher for women in their 40’s with today’s release of new guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF).

Backing off from its previous guidelines (2002), the task force now recommends against annual mammography for normal-risk women in this age-group, where it used to recommend for it. The new recommendation is to have the test every two years instead.

This is a major change from the task force, which is a leader in mammography screening guidelines. It goes against the recommendation of many other major U.S. groups, including the American Cancer Society, which is strongly critical of the USPSTF move.

So, why the disagreement?

It’s a debate over the harms versus the benefits of screening. Continue reading

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Breast Cancer, Oncology, Prevention, Women's Health | , | 1 Comment