A watchdog for health care journalism

healthnewsrevieworg.pngST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — The job of a health care reporter is to provide accurate, objective coverage of the health care industry. Yet in Gary Schwitzer’s opinion, that rarely happens in the American media. “The marketing forces in health care are so overwhelming even good journalists may not realize they’re being sold a bill of goods when they are,” says Schwitzer, a former news reporter for CNN and current journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. “There is a shocking number of single sourced stories, and stories that rely largely on news releases.”

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    • Five years ago, Schwitzer launched to improve the quality of patient decision making when it comes to choosing health care. The site does this by reviewing stories in the media regarding health care treatments and issuing a rating for each story. In this way, Health News Review has become the watchdog of health care journalism. The site currently gets 5,000 unique visitors a day and reviews news stories dealing with new treatments, drugs, and health care policies. For each story, the site issues a rating of one to five stars based on ten criteria, including how costs of treatments are described in the news story, if independent sources are used, and whether alternative sources of treatment are given attention.

      “News coverage impacts decision making,” says Schwitzer. “Almost 70 percent of stories fail to discuss cost, fail to explain benefits and harms… We want to improve the education of the American consumer. We want to meet them with these messages that they should scrutinize health care, news coverage, and ads, even their own doctors.”

      Since Health News Review’s launch in 2006, the site has reviewed more than 1,500 articles from dozens of major news outlets including Time, ABC, the Associated Press, and The New York Times. A five-star review might be issued for “terrific context,” direct discussion of the cost of a specific treatment, excellent analysis, and the use of several independent sources. A one-star review might be issued for using poor evidence to validate the benefits of a specific treatment, a lack of data, or reliance on studies that use a small pool of test subjects.

      “Our sample for any one news organization is small given their total output,” says Schwitzer. “We never want to say that we give 100 percent view of any one individual or news organization. Nonetheless, you can’t deny what a database of 1,500 stories says… ‘Folks, we are not informing people well enough on health care issues.'”

      Health News Review is a nonprofit and is funded by annual grants from the Boston-based Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. Twenty physicians and freelance journalists trained in evaluating scientific and medical evidence. The journalists are paid an hourly rate by the site, while physicians are paid separately through the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. By the time the site posts a review for any given story, at least three of Schwitzer’s team members will have combed through the story to issue a rating.

      The original model and mission for the site was inspired by an Australian website, Media Doctor, which aims to improve media coverage of new drugs and treatments in the Australian health care industry. “This is the only service of its kind in this country, although I feel like I’m part of a growing and strong international movement,” says Schwitzer, who recently was involved in the launch of a similar site in Germany.

      After five years, Schwitzer says he believes Health News Review has begun to make significant progress as the watchdog of the health care media. He says the site’s star ratings are increasingly used in health care reporters’ performance reviews, and mentions the case of an editor who gives his employees bonuses for stories that receive five stars. The American Cancer Society Action Network removed an ad campaign after it was criticized by the web site as being misleading.

      In another five years, Schwitzer says he hopes 90 percent of the stories reviewed get five stars for excellent journalism, and that his sites efforts will thus be rendered irrelevant. Sounds idealistic? “Idealism runs through my bloodstream,” counters Schwitzer. “I feel that this effort is actually part of health care reform because it has to start with patients making informed decisions.” Data



City: St. Paul

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Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.