Talking Shop: Karen Ravn

The Los Angeles Times freelancer discusses her recent piece on medical dishonesty

In “Body of Lies,” a recent article published in the Los Angeles Times, Karen Ravn reported on the widespread problem of dishonesty among patients when talking to their doctors. Here, Ravn answers a few questions via e-mail about the piece and her thoughts on the future of health journalism.

Sanhita Reddy: “Body of Lies” explores a particular aspect of health care—communication—that is all too often overlooked by the public, but is in fact a huge problem in the health field. Why did you decide to write about it?

Karen Ravn: The idea for this story actually came from my editor, Rosie Mestel. I believe she thought of it when she participated in a survey where she was asked some personal questions, and it struck her that in a few instances it might be tempting not to tell the absolute truth (although she did). I fear the only credit I can take is for saying sure, I’d love to do the story. It appealed to me especially because I studied the psychology of language and conversation in grad school.

SR: As science and health teams shed staff at media outlets across the country, it becomes increasingly difficult for reporters to cover the news that people need to read. What do you look for that makes a story worth writing, and take priority over others?

KR: Several doctors I talked to for this story said how glad they were that I was writing about this—“instead of writing about the latest gene someone just discovered,” one added. Writing about newly discovered genes is clearly very important too, of course. But I do generally prefer to write about less esoteric subjects that could actually affect readers’ day-to-day lives right away—especially subjects readers are curious about themselves (even if they didn’t know they were curious until they started to read the article).

SR: Online media have become a large part of science and health reporting—blogs like Tara Parker Pope’s Well and The Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog are not only popular, but also help reporters give their readers information that could not fit in the paper. What role do you think these blogs have played in raising health awareness? Benefits? Drawbacks?

KR: I noticed just [the other day] (on WSJ’s Health Blog!) that a new survey from the Pew Research Center found that 25 percent of all American adults have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, Web site, or blog. More generally, 61 percent look online for health information, and 42 percent say they or someone they know has been helped by info found on the Internet, while only 3 percent say they or someone they know has been harmed by info found on the Internet. These figures suggest that blogs and other Internet sources are playing a largely useful role in health awareness. Blogs have the benefit of letting readers interact with writers: ask questions, make contrary points, describe personal experiences (that other readers then get to share). On the other hand, not all blogs are as responsible as the NYT’s and the WSJ’s may be assumed to be. And quality control on reader postings ranges from limited to nil. (Still, the survey results suggest that if false info has been posted, it hasn’t had a big negative effect so far.) Of course, the “blogosphere” is just one in a long list of threats to print journalism these days, and I regret (understatement) any extent to which health reporting is a zero-sum game—where the growth of health blogs on the Web means the shrinkage of health sections in the paper.

SR: What are a few health topics that you think are under-the-radar, or need to be better reported?

KR: How should consumers evaluate health claims? Suppose an ad claims a certain drug will reduce your chances of having a stroke by 25 percent. But what are your chances in the first place—i.e., what are you reducing by 25 percent? If your chances of having a stroke start out at just one in a thousand, the drug won’t really do you that much good. But if your chances of having a stroke are 50 percent, the 25 percent reduction is a pretty big deal. I think it’s important for consumers to understand these types of figures, but few articles are written to explain them as far as I can tell.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance one of its top concerns—i.e., bacteria that used to be treatable with antibiotics no longer are. Much of this problem stems from improper or unnecessary antibiotic use by humans—say, to treat colds and flu. But many experts are convinced that a big part of the problem comes from the use of antibiotics with farm animals, and studies are starting to back them up.

The obesity epidemic is always in the news these days, and moderation is often recommended as a key to successful dieting. But for some people, at least, it’s easier, say, to cut out all desserts than to just cut down on them. I’ve never seen an article that discusses how to achieve the moderation so many articles urge. And that’s just one of the psychological issues involved in dieting that are often overlooked, I think.

With the WHO declaring a pandemic [last Thursday], the issue of animal-to-human disease transmission is bigger than ever. This has not gone unreported, of course. But I haven’t seen a thorough discussion of how inter-species transmission occurs—including why it usually doesn’t but sometimes does—and how it can be combated (without, perhaps, the killing of vast numbers of animals that seems to be standard practice now).

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.