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TV health coverage: bad for your health?

September 1, 2009 |  4:09 pm

Need more evidence that you should get your information about new developments in medicine from reliable news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times rather than from TV? We offer you the following:

HealthNewsReview.org, a health-journalism watchdog group that evaluates medical news coverage for accuracy, balance and completeness, announced today that it will stop grading the quality of health news stories that appear in national TV news outlets, including those that appear on the nightly news broadcasts and the morning shows of the big three commercial networks: CBS, NBC and ABC.

Why not critique the coverage of medical news seen by millions of American viewers? In part because it's lousy and, even with feedback, has shown little capacity for improvement, says professor Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview and a professor at the University of Minnesota's health journalism program. In three and a half years of reviewing TV news stories reporting medical developments, Schwitzer says, his organization has graded 228 network TV health segments.

The evening newscasts have fared relatively poorly at HealthNewsReview.org: while a piece may be awarded as many as five stars for quality, health-related segments that aired on the NBC Nightly News, the CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight received an average of 2.7, 2.4 and 2.2 stars, respectively. The medical segments airing on the networks' morning shows scored more poorly: an average of 2.1 stars for those on NBC's Today Show, and 1.8 apiece for segments that aired on ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Early Show.

(Full disclosure here: A search for Los Angeles Times health and medicine articles assessed by HealthNewsReview.org found that 55 articles rated in the same three-and-a-half year period averaged 3.84 out of a possible five stars.)

Schwitzer called the performance of the networks' morning news shows "embarrassing" when it comes to medical news. Celebrities, wrinkle creams, new tests and gee-whiz gadgetry abounded. Discussions of costs, risks, safety and alternatives were in much shorter supply.

The new tests and gee-whiz gadgetry that hold the attention of TV news audiences make for good drama, too, says a report by the newly minted nonprofit news agency, Kaiser Health News. But in an article on the impact of popular medical shows, media analysts and health professionals charge that medical dramas like Fox's hit series, "House," lead many patients to believe that more high-tech tests and more aggressive treatments are always better.

That belief, the article suggests, has driven up healthcare costs, often with worse or no better outcomes than they might have had with less intrusive diagnostic and treatment measures. It cites one 2006 episode as an illustration of House's penchant for costly testing: a single patient's battery of tests, including a particularly painful one, soars to about $9,200.

Emergency room physician Steven Davidson of Maimonides Hospital in New York observes in the article that between the television dramas and the omnipresence of medical news and information, patients have come to believe "that more is better." Parents who are steeped in medical dramas and coverage drag a kid to the ER with a bump on his head and demand a CT scan, he says, when a brief period of monitoring is adequate, safer and cheaper.

"Advice such as 'watchful waiting' does not make for good storylines," writes KHN staff writer Christopher Weaver.

-- Melissa Healy

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