Saturday, January 30, 2010

Academic Journals Need to Step In to Provide Essential Healthcare Coverage

No one can predict whether current healthcare reform efforts will pass. But even if reform passes, it will find a war torn battlefield of healthcare coverage left to explain it. There are now fewer and fewer healthcare journalists covering health, biomedicine, global health, etc. than ever before. Much of the coverage available through television/cable and through newspapers has proven to range from deceptive to outrageous. There is currently an entire group dedicating to evaluating health news and coverage, Health New Review. Coverage of health news on television had become so bad that Health News Review simply stopped reviewing television reports. The situation is no better in newspapers which often copy directly from news releases, especially for new medical and scientific findings.

The current healthcare debate did allow for the creation of some fantastic new resources, such as Kaiser Health News and the New England Journal of Medicine Healthcare Reform Center (which has produced a consistent set of excellent essays and perspectives on reform). There have also been new blogs like the NY Times Prescriptions Blog, but how long they will remain active after the political debate is over is unknown. Even if all of these new resources remain, as more and more journalists are fired and fewer reputable general resources exist, coverage of important topics and issues will become unavailable to the general public in the required depth. We have already seen examples of this during the healthcare debate where an enormously complex topic was distorted, twisted, and improperly explained to the public. 
What remains relatively steady are the academic journals. Yet the academic journals in which the required depth of coverage was available from NEJM to Health Affairs remain inaccessible to much of the public. Some journals, like JAMA stayed largely away from the issues and did not provide consistent coverage of healthcare reform. And the coverage outside of NEJM was not something a regular reader could easily understand. Furthermore, as part of a major university, like Tufts, TuftScope staff can access many of these sources. But regular readers cannot possibly afford to pay hundreds of dollars in fees on a yearly basis.

The academic journals, however, offer an effective way for clear-cut, balanced, and researched information to be presented on issues. Initiatives like the NEJM Reform Center which drew on a variety of perspectives and views could easily be extended to areas from swine flu to cancer coverage and beyond. This is not to say that academic medical and health journals should become newspapers. But they can certainly do much more to inform the public about the issues in an authoritative manner. Reading the January 13, 2010 commentaries published in JAMA on the breast cancer screenings is more valuable than a dozen aggregated news stories. Yet, these commentaries remain locked behind the academic firewall.

At TuftScope we understand that professional journals provide exclusive content that is expensive to publish and maintain. Yet, we believe that they can do much more to inform the public and benefit the public good. Who else will provide this complementary role in these difficult times? Cannot an academic journal supplement coverage from health newspapers and sources and still gain from it? We believe that they can, if only they would seek to reach outside of their traditional self imposed limitations.

Michael Shusterman is the 2009 - 2010 Editor in Chief of TuftScope Journal.
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TuftScope: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and Policy

TuftScope is a student journal published biannually in conjunction with Tufts University since 2001. Funding is provided by the Tufts Community Union Senate. The opinions expressed on this weblog are solely those of the authors. The staff reserves the right to edit blog postings for clarity and to remove nonfunctional links.

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