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Some Experts Prescribe Journalism-Infused M.D.s for Physicians, Writers

Communications and journalism training may improve physician bedside manner and empathy for patients.

 Interviewing sources as a journalist reminds Joyce Ho of probing patients for their stories as a physician in training. 
"[Doctors and reporters] are both working toward collecting all the pieces of the puzzle leading up to an event, whether it is a case of pneumonia or a bank robbery," wrote Ho, a student at Stanford University School of Medicine who is the first Stanford-NBC News Global Health Media Fellow, on her global health and media blog.
The Stanford-NBC News program, where Ho is rounding out the first half of her one-year fellowship, is one of several focused on health and journalism. The Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Medical School, affiliated with the Mayo Clinic, and Arizona State University's journalism school have teamed up on the Mayo-Cronkite Fellowship Program, and many schools—including New York UniversityMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyUniversity of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and University of California—Santa Cruz—offer programs in medical and health reporting and communications.
This recent influx of programs has raised questions from journalists and doctors about the degree to which the collaborations benefit medical and journalism students. Some say that M.D.'s can help journalists better understand the health beat, while others prescribe a "healthy ignorance," rather than medical school credentials, to reporters. Others say that aspiring physicians can improve their bedside interactions with and empathy for patients by studying journalism.
Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health and a medical journalism professor at NYU, says that when he first applied for health-related journalism jobs, his M.D. from the NYU School of Medicine, which he earned in 1998, helped him get his foot in some doors, but others were shut to him.
"There were editors who assumed, based somewhat understandably on experiences with other doctors who tried to write, that I wouldn't be able to produce anything useful for lay people," says Oransky. "I think that attitude has largely gone away and been replaced by a healthy respect for expertise."
But although newspaper editors—who have neither the resources nor time to train specialists—are increasingly coming to respect M.D.'s as journalism credentials, broadcast media require medical degrees of their correspondents, according to Oransky.
"Clearly, based on who tends to be hired, having an M.D. is a must for many television networks and stations. In fact, you could develop some bad habits ... if you go through your [medical] training," says Oransky, who is also treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ).
Others, such as Andrew Holtz, an independent health journalist and former AHCJ board member, are skeptical about the value of medical school for aspiring health journalists.
While medical schools focus on basic medical treatments for sick patients, health reporters need to look at larger trends that tend to receive little or no attention in medical school, says Holtz, who holds a master of public health from Portland State University.
"I often compare asking a doctor about health policy to asking an auto mechanic about transportation policy. Maybe they have something useful to say, but it is generally not from what they learned in their training program," he says.
Peter Fiske, author of the recent article "Unleash Your Inner Dummy" on the website of the journal Nature, says health journalists are better off without an M.D. because there is value to being a "dummy."
"In fact, a close friend of mine covered the health beat for the San Jose Mercury News," he says. "By being a 'dummy'—i.e., a lay person—I think she was in a better place to frame the technical topics she was covering in terms that her reader could grasp and appreciate."
Regardless of whether medical schools' collaborations with journalism programs are a good option for aspiring health reporters, some doctors say that journalism and communications skills can benefit medical students.
"[C]ommunicating with patients, colleagues, and the community is really central to what we do, and an increasingly recognized deficiency," says Adam Wolfberg, a Boston-based physician and professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, who reported for Newsweek before attending Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Holtz, the former AHCJ board member, agrees that doctors could afford to be better communicators. "There are piles of studies indicating the gaps between what doctors say and what patients hear and understand," he says.
Peter Polack, a Florida-based ophthalmologist who authors the blog Medical Practice Trends, adds that doctors often have to write abstracts, peer-reviewed articles, and applications for grants.
"[M]any of the issues that physicians face in the political arena, such as healthcare reform and reimbursement, see them at a distinct disadvantage, because they don't necessarily communicate their position effectively to the general public," he says.
Oransky, of Reuters Health, says he sometimes wonders if medical students and residents should have to endure being poked and prodded as patients for a week.
"It's probably more about empathy than specific communication techniques," he says.

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