In Depth

NAMC Survey: Questions of Ethics

NewsPro, in association with the National Association of Medical Communicators, recently polled NAMC members about their attitudes toward the professional demands made on doctor-journalists, and the possibility of ethical conflicts when they are called upon to do both jobs at once. Their response ratios, and a sampling of their comments, follow.

1: Must doctor-reporters choose between medicine and journalism when faced with a news story that encompasses a great medical need, such as the situation in Haiti?

A: Yes, there is an inherent conflict -16.6%
B: No, it is possible to do both - 83.3%
Comments:
“Professional life requires trade-offs. The ethical principles that guide actions with patients are different than those that guide a reporter’s with an audience.”
“It would be difficult for a ‘real’ doctor to ignore a medical emergency.”
“Physicians have an ethical obligation to their patients, but if there is no patient present, that
specific obligation can be overcome by journalistic ethical guidelines.”
“The moral imperative is to help the injured. It is the oath we take as physicians.”

2: What are the biggest ethical conflicts for doctor-reporters covering a crisis such as that in Haiti?

A: Ignoring countless people in medical need in order to report a story - 20.0%
B: Treating selected cases that have to most potential to generate viewer interest - 35.0%
C: Making themselves part of the story by getting involved in it - 35.0%
D: Neglecting the need for dissemination of information by devoting themselves solely to
medical service - 5.0%
E: Other - 5.0%
Comments:
“A physician is never merely a reporter, the Hippocratic Oath still binds the physician, no matter his or her avocation.”
“As an individual, there are many circumstances in which I do not treat the people around me. The
need is infinite and my own time is limited. I divide my time between practice and nonpractice. I don’t think there’s any ethical conflict here if I decide to, for example, go to Haiti in a nonpractice role.”
“I do not feel getting involved is an ethical conflict. To not get involved is the actual conflict.”
“I don’t think there is a conflict. We help while at the same time letting the world know of the
problem. In this way we are helping in another way by reaching many people and giving the “real” story of shortages, needs for continuity of care and a permanent medical presence, and speaking the truth about the situation from a medical, psychological and realistic perspective.”

3: Is a doctor-reporter ethically obligated to to assume the role of doctor if an immediate and
urgent medical need presents itself in the midst of reporting a story?
A: Yes - 100%
Comments:
“Urgent medical need is a tricky thing: It can look one way on camera, and actually be something
different. But if the doctor perceives an urgent medical need, then the doctor’s intercession can
itself be the story: Sanjay Gupta in Haiti, for example, and New Orleans.”
“It’s part of professional DNA, not to mention codes of ethics, to intercede when immediate need
requires it. Whether we name this beneficence or fairness isn’t relevant.”
“It’s the same obligation when we are out in public and a serious emergency occurs.”
“If an individual to whom I am talking suddenly experiences a life-threatening emergency, my
obligation would be to provide medical assistance. Short of that, my obligation would be whatever role I have taken on — journalism, for example.”

4: Does the public get better information and/or news from doctor-reporters vs. standard
journalists? Briefly, why or why not?

“Not necessarily. It depends on the story being covered. It may simply be easier, and require much
less work/research for a doctor-reporter to report on certain [topics] than it would a standard journalist.”
“No, and because what the public requires is not what doctors are trained to offer. Doctors typically
cannot offer simple, clear, accurate short descriptions of diagnosis and treatment. But many learn to do so over time. Learning news is a different challenge altogether. Perspective and timing are everything.”
“In some cases, yes, because the doctor has scientific evidence for the comments that are made and so the comments are grounded in research and not just
opinion.”
“Yes, because there is no way for a reporter to understand the complexities of the medical
situations as efficiently as a practicing physician. The severity of an injury or disease is frequently not as it might appear to a layperson. The hope is that the medical physician reporter can quickly assess and explain complex issues without complex jargon.”
“You want a journalist to have some areas of expertise on which he or she focuses. What better
for a health reporter than a physician?”

—Tom Gilbert