05/08/2013 02:20 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Navigating Health Care and Information -- Health Care Journalists Share Insights for Consumers (Part 1)

Part 1

This is a two-part post. Part one provides insights from health care journalists to help consumers understand health news, and part two shares insights to help consumers navigate through health care.

With more consumers turning to the Internet to search for health information, the process can be labor intensive, leaving consumers confused and wondering if the information presented is accurate or just hype. Additionally, mainstream media, from print to airwaves, in attempts to be first with the news, may quickly broadcast or print information that later gets retracted. Some health news outlets may promise "cures" or "miracles" or create a frenzy of fear. Navigating health care can be confusing and overwhelming. I asked fellow health care journalists from the Association of Health Care Journalists to weigh in on the topic to provide advice for consumers and patients to navigate health care and information.

The following health care journalists share their opinions and offer their insights. (I also weigh in on the questions.)

1. Gary Schwitzer, Publisher,
2. Dayna Harpster, Senior Staff Writer, The News-Press Media Group
3. Daniel M. Keller, Ph.D., Founder, Keller Broadcasting, writer at Medscape
4. Maureen "Shawn" Kennedy, MA, RN, Editor-in-Chief, American Journal of Nursing
5. Stacey Singer, Health Writer, The Palm Beach Post
6. Sally James, Freelance Medical Writer and Editor
7. Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA, Founder,, Media Broadcaster, Registered Nurse

Q: Barbara Ficarra -- As a health journalist what is one key element consumers should be aware of when it comes to health information in the media and why?

A: Gary Schwitzer, Publisher, -- Most media messages provide only one snapshot in one little frame at one moment in time. Consumers should be concerned about the broader body of evidence in a given field, evidence that the media message may not have explored. Through our project, we try to help consumers think about 10 criteria that they should think about whenever they hear or read information that includes a claim about a treatment, test, product or procedure.

The 10 criteria are:

• What is the cost?
• How often do potential benefits occur?
• How often do potential harms occur?
• What is the quality of the evidence?
• How does the new idea compare with existing alternatives?
• Did the media message commit disease-mongering? (Exaggerating a condition)
• Who are the sources for the story and do they have conflicts of interest?
• Is this truly a new idea, or old fish wrapped in new newspaper?
• Is the approach available, or is it still in an early phase of research?
• Did the story/message appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

A: Dayna Harpster, Senior Staff Writer, The News-Press Media Group -- Results of medical studies are not always reported properly. It's true that statistics can be manipulated to say anything, and it happens in reports in respected medical journals, too. is a good source for checking the validity of what you read anywhere.

A: Daniel M. Keller, Ph.D., Founder, Keller Broadcasting, Writer at Medscape -- When reading/listening about clinical trial results, ask two things. First, does the trial apply to me? Trial inclusion/exclusion criteria are very specific. For example, was a diabetes study on Type 1 or Type 2 patients, or did the trial exclude people like me because I have multiple co-morbidities and the trial involved people with purely one disease or condition, as trials often do? Second, ask who is reporting the results and if he/she knows enough to report the topic accurately.

A: Maureen "Shawn" Kennedy, MA, RN, Editor-in-Chief, American Journal of Nursing -- That much of what they read is likely biased and written by organizations/companies that have a vested interest and may not present all the evidence, good and bad. Consumers need to look at who is writing/sponsoring the information. That they can't act on the findings of one research report. Research must be put in context with other studies. And findings may only be pertinent for a specific group, not applicable to everyone.

A: Stacey Singer, Health Writer, The Palm Beach Post -- Very little health information on the web is objective and free from commercial interest, and as a result, curative properties will tend to be overstated and side-effects and risks understated. Plus, the simple act of searching may make your private health concerns known to commercial entities. That's true, of course, for pharmaceutical industry sites and vitamin sellers, whose interests are obvious. Even reliable news sites are prone to hype in order to attract clicks. The less hype, the more accuracy. I like best for reliable, objective consumer health information.

A: Sally James, Freelance Medical Writer and Editor -- When you read, always ask yourself if the original source has any self-interest. For example, if the Cranberry Council of America says that cranberries prevent cancer, you might be skeptical. Seek sources that are as neutral as possible. Always ask: Does this author/blogger/institute have a financial interest in the information?

A: Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA, Founder, Media Broadcaster, Registered Nurse -- Be inquisitive. Just because the latest headline grabbed your attention, make sure there is substance behind the title. Journalists may write a story based on a news release without digging deeper into the research. You need to ask questions. The Internet has changed communication, and it has become a "diagnostic tool." According to a report by Pew Internet and American Life Project, "eight in 10 online health inquiries start at a search engine ... 81 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet and 59 percent have searched online for health information in the past year ... 35 percent of U.S. adults have searched online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have." There's a plethora of health information online -- make sure you question what you read and utilize reputable health sites.

Your turn

We would love to hear from you. What tips do you have for navigating health information online? Which health sites do you trust? As always, thank you for your very valuable time.

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