Module JD100

Medical and Health Journalism

Module author

Rukhsana Ahmed

University of Ottawa

Learning objectives After you have completed this module, you will be able to:
  • Understand and describe the important aspects of communicating medical and health news and information;
  • Understand and discuss theories that inform news reporting;
  • Understand and critically evaluate ethical concerns in and practices of communicating medical and health news and information; 
  • Convey medical and health news and information in clear, meaningful, and understandable ways to readers, viewers, and listeners across various media platforms;
  • Reflect on the role of medical and health journalists to deliver to the public medical and health related news and information that is understandable, accurate, complete, balanced, and actionable.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Key Issues in Communicating Medical and Health News and Information 
2.1 Health Literacy 
2.2 Media Literacy 
2.3 Social Determinants of Health 

Chapter 3: Theoretical and Practical Considerations in Communicating Medical and 
Health News and Information 
3.1 Agenda Setting 
3.2 Framing 

Chapter 4: Ethical Concerns in Communicating Medical and Health News and
4.1 Information and Communication Technologies 
4.2 Evidence-based Reporting 
4.3.1 Toulmin Model of Argumentation 
4.3 Cultural Sensitivity 
4.4 Source Credibility

Study points 2
Preview Medical and Health Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Medical and Health Journalism is important

Journalism is a system of collecting, analyzing, reporting, and broadcasting information which is made up of facts about situations. Journalism is supposed to provide a well-balanced and objective view on what is being reported. It is about covering events and information in a way that is easily understood.

Medical journalism is the dissemination of health and medical information and related subjects in the media. It targets regular people rather than professionals by releasing health related information through media sources. 

Medical and health issues are of interest to most people and are commonly reported, as they have an impact on medical behavior and awareness. Medical journalism also makes contributions to medical practices, health care usage, and government policies.

There has been an increase in the release of the latest developments in the field of medicine and a growing interest in medical information. It has created a demand for writers who understand medical stories and can communicate them effectively. 


Why study medical and health journalism?

When medical issues are reported, they influence physicians, the general public, and the government. 

The nature of peer review in the scientific community makes it hard to report on advances in medicine. This often leads to a focus on the negative side of medicine and science. Journalists tend to report on the mistakes doctors make or misreport research results. 

The general public has lack of medical knowledge. This creates a situation where someone can easily be swayed when the information is presented in a manner which is not objective. This can create an unfavorable view of an illness or procedure that is actually relatively harmless.

Medical journalism can also influence the quality of an individual's health care. With the relative ease with which information can be gotten off the internet, people are now questioning doctors on medicines and treatments. In other cases, people will compare their symptoms, real or imagined, in an attempt to diagnose themselves.


Health and medical literacy

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the ability to receive, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make informed health decisions. 

Health literacy depends on individual and systemic factors, including:

  • Communication skills,
  • Knowledge of health topics,
  • Culture,
  • Demands of the healthcare and public health systems,
  • Demands of the situation.

Health literacy affects people's ability to

  • navigating the health care system, including filling out insurance and health history forms;
  • locating providers and services;
  • sharing personal information with providers;
  • engaging in self-care and chronic-disease management;
  • understanding mathematical concepts in health care, such as probability and risk.

Media literacy is a range of abilities that help people analyze, evaluate, and understand messages in a variety of modes, genres, and formats.

Information and media literacy allows people to interpret and make informed judgments as media and information users, as well as to become creators and producers of information and media messages in their own right.

Medical journalism can be found in a variety of places, including:

  1. Television news programs
  2. Newspapers
  3. Internet websites
  4. Scientific journals that report health and medical related news
  5. Wikipedia itself is a major source of health information on the internet. One study found that in a selection of health keywords, Wikipedia is listed in the first ten results 71 to 85 percent of the time.


Social determinants of health

The social determinants of health are the economic and social conditions - and their distribution among the population - that influence individual and group differences in health status. 

They are risk factors found in one's living and working conditions (such as the distribution of income, wealth, influence, and power), rather than individual factors (such as behavioral risk factors or genetics) that influence the risk for a disease, or vulnerability to disease or injury.


Ethical concerns

Concerns about communicating medical and health news and information must include taking into consideration what is normal in different communities. Some things that needed to be taken into consideration include:

  1. To get a person's name correct, ask for it, including the spelling.
  2. Always avoid assuming about information or details.
  3. No education, a limited income, or no insurance, combined with a high tolerance for bad symptoms, may lead to delays in getting health care.
  4. Consider using other methods of communication, such as pictures, sign language, or interpreters when necessary.
  5. Try to put a person at ease by asking sensitive questions at the start. Beginning with "Maybe it is a bit embarrassing to ask this..." is likely to make a person feel comfortable when responding.
  6. Not making eye contact is considered being polite in some communities. This is especially relevant in cross gender interactions. It is more appropriate for men to make eye contact with other men, and women make eye contact with other women, but not for a man and a woman to do so.
  7. Avoid finishing sentences for people as they may just be searching for the right English word to express what they are trying to communicate. Give them time to do this.
  8. Take an interest in from where the client comes as this goes a long way to establishing a rapport. Share your background too in this cultural exchange.


Information and communication technologies 

Electronic medical records let medical professionals access, update and share patient information easily, allowing patients to get better care. With electronic medical records, doctors can transmit sections of a patient's chart to a specialist for a quick referral or to a hospital to notify attendants about what medications a patient is taking.

Prescription technology allows doctors and pharmacies to communicate with each other. A doctor can send a prescription to a patient's pharmacy right from the computer. According to the National ePrescribing Patient Safety Initiative website, electronic prescription systems reduce medication errors.

"Telemedicine is the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve patients' health status," according to the American Telemedicine Association. With telemedicine, videoconferencing equipment is used that lets the doctor and patient see each other. Telemedicine offers a solution to geographic barriers and lets patient communication be more efficient.


Toulmin model of argumentation

The Toulmin Model of Argumentation is a process which contains six parts used for analyzing arguments. It outlines practical steps which are used effectively in evaluating the ethics behind moral issues.

  1. Claim: A conclusion whose value must be determined. In argumentative essays, it may be called the thesis. 
  2. Ground: A fact one uses as a foundation for the claim. 
  3. Warrant: A statement authorizing movement from the ground to the claim.
  4. Backing: Credentials intended to prove the statement given in the warrant; backing must be introduced when the warrant itself is not convincing enough. 
  5. Rebuttal: Assertions identifying the restrictions which may be applied to the claim. 
  6. Qualifier: Words or phrases expressing the speaker's degree of certainty about the claim. Such words or phrases include "probably," "possible," "impossible," "certainly," "presumably," "as far as the evidence goes," and "necessarily." 

The first three parts, "claim," "data," and "warrant," are necessary parts of practical arguments, while the second three, "qualifier," "backing," and "rebuttal," may not be needed.


Cultural sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity is the awareness and understanding of the standards, morals, and principles of a certain society, culture, ethnic group or race. It is accompanied by a desire to adapt to one's actions to coincide with the sensitivity.

Cultural sensitivity is made up of four parts: 

  1. Awareness of one's own cultural worldview, 
  2. Attitude towards cultural differences, 
  3. Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, and 
  4. Developing cultural competence which results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people of other cultures. 


Source credibility

Most factual errors and conjecture in media coverage can be because of lack of cooperation between the scientific community and the general public. Communication breakdowns occur because of a lack of knowledge by reporters, no time to prepare a proper article, and a lack of space to publish an article.

Medical journalism is not just what is being written about in print and electronic media. Academic journalism that is based on scientific research is another form of media. It is more accurate and reliable than medical news in other media.