04 Aug 5 Things Journalism Can Teach Health Care
Post written by Emily Sadecki
Commotion buzzes all around you. The person in front of you is nervous, unsure and distracted. Often talking to professionals in your field can cause apprehension. You ask them questions about their life, their current situation and the different factors that led them to you. You take copious notes so that you won’t forget anything later.
Interviewing someone in the heat of a groundbreaking news story can have many similarities to trying to properly utilize the brief period of time a medical provider has to talk to a patient. Innovation does not always have to be creating something new, but can involve pulling tactics from other disciplines and applying them in new settings or ways. This can include diversifying the fields of study that are incorporated into the training of medical staff. Journalism training is one such discipline that could be advantageous to the practice of medicine for the following reasons:
- Everyone is the expert of his or her own narrative. While health care professionals may understand disease, only the patients themselves can tell their own story. Descriptive narratives of home life, eating habits or traumatic experiences can lay a very informative backdrop for the disease at hand that the provider cannot access through any textbook. It is even becoming the focus of new graduate programs, such as the Columbia University Medical Center’s Program in Narrative Medicine.
- Listening is key. In an article by the New York Times, the importance of communication in hospitals is emphasized. They cited reports by the Joint Commission that found “communication failure (rather than a provider’s lack of technical skill) was at the root of 70 percent of adverse health outcomes in hospitals.” They also report that, on average, physicians interrupt 18 seconds after a patient begins talking. Keeping the patient at the center of the visit and listening, really listening, to what they are saying not only builds a relationship, but reveals pieces of a narrative that may be beneficial to prescribing a treatment.
- Check your own bias. One of the pinnacle things taught in journalism programs is the way that a reporter’s previous experience can frame how they think and write about topics. Topics confronted in both journalism and medicine can be very personal and controversial. These same biases may come into play when a medical provider interacts with someone who has a particular disease or condition. Reflecting on how previous life experiences and values could influence how a reporter or medical provider does their job and then being able to create a plan on how to approach those situations is an essential component of either role.
- Words are a powerful entity. Words are at the very core of a journalists work. They understand that there are many ways to say the same thing, and choosing the right one is incredibly important to the quality of a story. They also recognize the power of a professional’s words in giving credibility to a story. This is a double-edged sword for medical professionals. Words can serve as both a remedy and an ailment. We see this in a trick carried out by a NPR science reporter. The journalist, who has his Ph.D., purposefully pitched a poorly done study on the health benefits of chocolate to news outlets and soon enough, headlines started emerging. People take the words of professionals very seriously, so appropriate use of words would be a beneficial exercise for medical professionals.
- Atmosphere makes a difference. While there is not always the luxury of choosing where the interview will be in live news stories, generally, journalists allow the subject to dictate where the interview is held. This is done because they are much more apt to talk if they are in a setting where they feel safe and comfortable. Though letting the patient dictate the location of the appointment is not always an option, there are other ways to increase a patient’s comfort level. This PBS piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Eric Nalder, gives some advice on how to create an atmosphere through location, words and actions to make subjects open to talking.
Looking at innovation as a repurposing of current ideologies is just as important as designing new technologies. Communication is a simple skill that can have big impacts on patient outcomes. Journalism is only one example of a discipline where skillsets can be pulled for the medical practice. If you are looking to learn more about the practice of journalism, Poynter – News University and Society of Professional Journalists would be good places to start. There are a plethora of online tutorials that can walk you through ways to improve your interviewing and writing skills.