Nov 12th Chat – Media + Healthcare


Blog post by Colin Hung

Over the past week, those of us who live in the Toronto (Ontario, Canada) region have been inundated with stories and articles about Toronto’s mayor – Rob Ford. The story is so tragic/incredible/sensational that it has been picked up by press outlets all around the world – in the UK, Australia and even Tokyo. This kind of scandal is rare in Canadian politics. In fact, I can’t remember a time when a Canadian politician made international headlines.

This whole story started because of two Toronto Star reporters who did some investigating of Toronto’s mayor for a story.  This whole situation got me thinking about the power of mainstream media and the power it still holds over us. I thought it would be interesting to explore the impact of mass media on healthcare and what we, as healthcare leaders, can do about it at an individual level and at a macro level.

Here are this week’s #HCLDR topics:

  • T1: As a healthcare leaders how would you deal with a patient/colleague who believes a healthcare story that you know is incorrect?
  • T2: Does mass media have too much influence/focus on healthcare? or not enough? (example: flu shot myths, trans-fat, dieting)
  • T3: What stories or problems in healthcare SHOULD get more attention from mass media and why?
  • CT: What’s one thing you learned tonight that you will bring into your area of expertise to help a patient tomorrow?

Please join us on Tuesday November 12th at 8:30pm Eastern Time (North America) for our weekly #HCLDR tweetchat!

Additional Background

Although the power and reach of social media is growing, there’s no debating that mainstream media (TV, radio and print) still dominates. Everything from the clothes we buy to the politicians we elect is influenced by mainstream media. It’s a powerful force in our daily lives – though many of us don’t fully realize the sway it has on us. Our opinions, for example, are often formed based on what we read or hear or see through mainstream media.

The recent spate of Rob Ford news coverage got me thinking about the influence of media and how it helps/hurts healthcare. I started to wonder, what we as healthcare leaders could do to counteract or encourage mainstream media stories?

Doubt that mainstream media influences healthcare? Consider the case of Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old woman who died in March 2005 after her feeding tube was removed (she was in a vegetative state at the time). The controversy surrounding her death made international headlines. A study conducted by researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC) and the University of California, San Francisco found that:

  • 61% of people who knew about the Schiavo story reported clarifying their own end-of-life care goals as a result;
  • 66% reported speaking with family and friends about advance care planning; and
  • 37% reported wanting to complete an advance directive

Those are pretty compelling numbers.

End-of-life planning is important, and the media’s attention on the Schiavo case helped to elevate this important aspect of healthcare to the public on a level that had never been achieved before. In this instance, media influence was beneficial to healthcare, but that’s not always the case. 

Consider the controversy over flu vaccinations. Every year at the start of influenza season, the media goes into a frenzy reporting how some healthcare workers refuse to get a flu shot – or how someone had an adverse reaction to the shot and had long-term issues. What gets lost in the sensationalized reporting is the impact that influenza has on our economy and on our lives; that if you get sick you should stay home and not infect your coworkers/classmates; and that the flu shot can help prevent x% of the strains that are anticipated that year. There’s a great interview with NNU Co-president, Karen Higgins on The Flu Shot Debate on Nurse Talk Radio that highlights these points.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the flu shot is a great idea, but depending on which media outlet you watch/subscribe to, your decision to get one could be unduly influenced by the horror stories that come out each year. As healthcare leaders, I often wonder how I should approach a colleague who believes in a healthcare story that I know to be false. Should I confront this head on? Print out contra-articles? Casually mention that it might not be as they believe? or should I leave them alone?

Every day there are new medical breakthroughs that are reported. It’s hard to know without doing a lot of your own research whether these stories are based on preliminary results or if its based on extensive clinical trials. The media, unfortunately, seems to gloss over these points. They also rarely mention the cost of the new treatment/procedure/device – which could lead to an increase in healthcare costs. Maggie Mahar wrote an excellent piece on this subject: “How the mainstream media hypes health care“. In her article, Mahar points us towards a key question: Is the influence of media on healthcare too much?

Finally there is the question of whether the media can be used to help bring attention to areas of health or healthcare that really need a boost. I’m sure each of us could rhyme off a dozen or more diseases, policies and challenges that could benefit from a moment in the media spotlight. I’m curious to know which the #HCLDR community thinks needs it most…and how we can shine the light on these areas so that the media takes notice.

I’m looking forward to discussing media and healthcare with the #HCLDR community on Tuesday November 12th at 8:30pm Eastern Time (North America).


“The Flu Shot Debate with NNU Co-president, Karen Higgins” – Nurse Talk Radio, June 25, 2013

“Consumer Behavior and Health Care Change: the Role of Mass Media” – Association for Consumer Research, 1979

“How the Mainstream Media Hypes Health Care” – Maggie Mahar, Health Beat 2008

“Terri Schiavo has died” – CNN 2005

“The Influence Of The Mass Media On Health Policy” Health Affairs 1992

“Mainstream media still tops at influencing public opinion: poll” – June 2012

“Schiavo Case Showed Media’s Potential Influence on Health Care Decisions, Study Says” UCSF Sept 2008

Image Credit


One comment

  1. Nice post, Colin. Mass media and social media are powerful outlets for journalists, policymakers, and health professionals.

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