With one of the most significant and expensive overhauls of the American health care system about to begin, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism recently decided to suspend its health/medical reporting concentration due to low student interest.

Students in the eighteen-month program must specialize in one of five disciplines—health/medical, arts/culture, business/economics, international, and urban—in order to complete their master’s degree. But when it came time for the most recent crop of students to pick their concentrations at the end of first semester, only two opted for the health/medical track. Three classes have graduated since the Graduate School of Journalism opened in 2006, and during each of those years the concentration attracted seven to ten students out of fifty to sixty in total.

“There just wasn’t much student interest,” said Trudy Lieberman, the director of the health/medical track at CUNY (and a CJR contributing editor who covers health care for the magazine and Web site). “It’s kind of hard to fathom because this is the story of our time at the moment.”

Moreover, the class that entered in September was 25 percent larger than the year before, having grown from sixty to eighty students. Applications to that class were up 50 percent from the year before. Applications to next year’s class, which were due in December, were up another 25 percent over that, but the school has already decided that it will not offer the health/medical concentration then, either.

Stephen Shepard, the founding dean of the journalism school, said that with the assistance of the faculty he would conduct a thorough review of the track’s design, and eventually hopes to revive it.

“We understand that it may be the smallest [concentration of the five], and that’s fine,” he said. “But what was it that the students didn’t like about it? Or was it simply that they had other preferences?”

The arts and culture, international, and urban concentrations are the most popular at CUNY, according to Shepard. Business/economics is the second smallest track behind health/medical. That somewhat ironic, Shepard added, because he believes that business/economics and, to a lesser extent, health/medical offer relatively good job opportunities.

“Not a lot of places are hiring critics or arts writers,” he said, “but you know, the students choose what they want partly for career reasons and partly because it’s an interesting subject concentration, they like the mix of the courses, or they like the instructors—whatever their personal interests may be.”

Alex Green IV, who graduated in December, said that while he found the education valuable, he did not enjoy his health/medical classes. Green entered the program knowing that he wanted to cover health/medical, and still does. But he said that he and others felt the workload was too heavy, that the instructors could be arrogant and dry, and that there wasn’t a good balance between teaching medical information and teaching journalism.

Because of such factors, Green said, he and some other graduating students discouraged their incoming peers from following the health/medical concentration unless it was something they were certain they wanted to do professionally. “We all felt on edge,” he said. “I’m sure that other students weren’t quite as harsh as I might have been, but they still weren’t enthusiastic.”

At least one of Green’s classmates demurred, however. “The classes definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but in a good way,” said Jeanmarie Evelly, adding that she had had no experience in health reporting prior to enrolling at CUNY and would recommend the health/medical concentration to other students.

Still, Shuka Kalantari, who graduated in 2008, said that some of the complaints that Green mentioned were common during her year, too. She called the curriculum “amazing,” however, and said the rigorous education helped her get her current job as an outreach coordinator for KQED Radio’s Health Dialogues program.

“I think that’s a huge reasons why the health/medical concentration is no longer around is because people thought it was too hard, and that baffles me,” Kalantari said. “It’s not just about knowing how to make a Final Cut video and write a lede. If you don’t know the issues, why would you then be the voice that people listen to or read? You have to work really hard. You have to learn the subject inside and out, and you owe it to the public to do so. We need good health care reporters right now, and I was very disappointed in the decision to drop the concentration.”

Unfortunately, CUNY’s is not the only health/medical journalism program that has been struggling. The University of Minnesota suspended its graduate health journalism program during the 2007-2008 academic year. The program wasn’t drawing enough students from the journalism school, so it changed its name and curriculum in a bid to reach enrollment targets by attracting more students from the school of public health (both schools had always been eligible). The program reopened during 2008-2009 under the name Health Journalism and Communication and fielded a class of fourteen. But it was shelved again during this academic year because of constraints in the state budget, according to Gary Schwitzer, who stepped down as the program’s director at the end of last year and is currently on sabbatical.

“This is not a pretty picture,” he said, referring to the situations at the University of Minnesota and CUNY. Schwitzer said that the University of Minnesota’s health journalism program was actually attracting an average of fourteen students per year, making it one of the biggest of its kind, but that his department had unreasonable enrollment expectations of eighteen to twenty. (New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program typically has fifteen students a year, but has a broader orientation than just medical journalism. So does Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism, which fields a class of nine to twelve each year, and the University of North Carolina’s Medical & Science Journalism Program, which fields two to four.)

The circumstances at the University of Minnesota might be different than at CUNY, Schwitzer added, but the consequence—a decline in the quality of the health and medical journalism—is the same, and all schools must find a way to support such vital programs.

Schwitzer runs the highly regarded media criticism Web site, HealthNewsReview.org. The site has evaluated 930 health news articles in the past three and a half years, and found that the vast majority failed to adequately discuss the cost of a new treatment, test, product, or procedure; or they failed to adequately quantify the harms and the benefits.

“Seventy percent of stories make it look like everything is risk-free and without a price tag,” Schwitzer said. “That is the danger of the direction that the industry is going, and that’s the danger of the dissolution of programs like CUNY’s and ours, if that happens here.”

Suggestions for how universities can help fill the vacuum left by cutbacks in journalism vary, but one of the most popular ideas at moment is to train members of the health and medical professions to be better communicators. Lieberman said that the CUNY program had succeeded in attracting in students from the public health program at Hunter College. In the same vein, she will now shift venues and teach health/medical communications courses in professional programs at Hunter and at Baruch College, both of which are in the CUNY system. (An innovative, multimedia, community health reporting project geared toward combating obesity and diabetes in the South Bronx run by Lieberman will also move to Hunter.)

“Maybe the place for this [education] is in other disciplines like medicine, or public health, or public administration,” she said. “It may be that the principles we teach in health journalism work very well in an applied setting with public health and medical professionals. I believe that’s probably where it ought to be going forward.”

Ivan Oransky, who teaches health and medical reporting in NYU’s SHERP program and was an adjunct professor for the CUNY program, in addition to being the executive editor of Reuters Health, said that these programs should court students with focused interests in health and medicine, rather than just a general interest in journalism.

“When you have as challenging and specific a concentration as medicine and health you may do much better if you focus on finding people who are already interested in those subjects and have demonstrated a facility in them,” he said. “In other words, reaching out to other schools like Hunter, in the case of CUNY, or doing what NYU does, which is attracting and creating a program around students who already have some expertise [in some field of science]. Maybe that’s the way forward.”

To that effect, Schwitzer suggested offering introductory courses in health and medical journalism at the undergraduate level, which he says he has done to great and lasting success, but which is incredibly rare in academia.

Whatever the solution may be, one hopes that universities will find it soon. Programs of this sort may disappear, but the need for quality health and medical reporting will not go away.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.