Dr Justin Coleman may be best known to Croakey readers as The Naked Doctor but he wears many hats, including as president of the Australasian Medical Writers Association.
In the article below, he gives an overview of the association’s recent conference, which covered issues ranging from social justice and Indigenous health to the ethics of ghostwriting and media coverage of obesity.
On related matters, readers with an interest in medicine and the media might like to check this study published by French researchers in PLOS Medicine, Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study.
The researchers investigated the presence of “spin” in a selection of scientific articles, journal press releases and media reports – spin being defined as “specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasising the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment”.
They found spin in 28 (40%) of scientific article abstract conclusions, in 33 (47%) press releases, and in 21 (51%) news items. The findings might help explain “a mismatch between the perceived and real beneficial effects of new treatments among the general public,” they say.
Taking medical writing beyond spin
Justin Coleman writes:
Travel far enough down the list of desired outcomes for most careers and you will eventually reach some variant on ‘make the world a better place’. This sentiment leapt to the top of the list during the recent Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA) 29th annual conference in Brisbane, Social Justice in Health.
Medical writers are good at presenting complex information clearly and accurately. We learn how to spell big words, use smaller ones where possible, and delete the weasels entirely.
But like all writers, we also inevitably influence our reader’s viewpoint, whether by overt choice of topic or by subtle selection of descriptive phrases. We figured that learning about the health needs of marginalised groups such as refugees and prisoners, while not our bread-and-butter, couldn’t hurt!
The Overcoming Disadvantage session opened with two Queenslanders of the Year. Professor Ian Frazer found that inventing a vaccine is one thing, but equitably sharing its potential involves more than science. China has spent six years unsuccessfully attempting to replicate the vaccine off-patent, which would make it more affordable, but meanwhile millions are contracting papilloma virus. Associate Professor Noel Hayman took a one-room Indigenous health service at Inala and built one of the nation’s leading clinical and research centres.
Croakey contributor Professor Chris Del Mar created—and weathered, it must be said—a storm when his Cochrane review found little evidence that the $4 billion governments spent stockpiling Tamiflu was scientifically justified. His lightning bolts struck the manufacturer twice when he suggested that this price tag should come with free photocopying of the full clinical trial results. Two years later, Roche’s photocopier remains out-of-order.
Dr Karen Woolley, CEO of Proscribe Medical Communications, pulled no punches when banishing ghostwriters back into the fiery pits from whence they came. All AMWA members abide by ethical writing guidelines, but a few of us were looking a little nervous until Karen clarified the distinctive markings of these ghosts: her summary article is here.
Local GP Dr Wendell Rosevear left us stunned. Wendell works with male victims and perpetrators of rape. Impossible to summarise, his remarkable one-slide presentation required ‘being there’: we suggest you ‘get him there’ for any future, relevant educational events. Grim, but revelatory.
We found novel ways to examine obesity. Health journalist Dr Catriona Bonfiglioli wondered if the stock footage of ‘headless, morbidly obese torsos’ accompanying every TV and newspaper exposé, disengages the more typical, overweight audience. Mildly obese folk inhabit the media photographer’s least wanted weight range, so maybe the message doesn’t apply to them?
Dr Julie-Anne Carroll from QUT pointed out that obesity—and poor health generally—can be predicted by postcode. Interestingly, studies repeatedly demonstrate that poor people living in rich suburbs have better health than rich people living in poor suburbs. Although poor, they access parks and walking tracks, and their neighbours don’t consider cigarettes and hamburgers staple norms. Seems healthy behaviours are contagious.
Having already made the world a better place, the last session was all ‘me, me, me’ for the starving writer. Who knew that blogging and social media can earn you cash? This Naked Doctor is still waiting for his first royalties, although maybe he could now claim clothes as a tax deduction? You can certainly claim overseas travel, according to writer Carole Goldsmith, who never hops on a plane without a notepad, camera and a few blank invoices.
Aimée Lindorff, from the Queensland Writers Centre, estimated the average advance for a first time fiction book author is a paltry $5000-8000 and usually no further money changes hands. Made us medical writers glad we only write fiction occasionally, and never deliberately.
Croakey readers are already familiar with the interconnections between health and social equity. We invite you to join us at AMWA, where we’ll teach you how to make a living out of them.
• Dr Justin Coleman is President of AMWA