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Health Communication Ethics

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Since the dawn of existence “medicine” has been a remedy used to heal ones illnesses. Overtime more of people have been made aware of medical advances and want the most up to date information regarding medical knowledge. This has created the need for a medical communication field, in which individuals who are heavily trained are given the task of education the public through media and communication resources. However, how this is communicated can be an ethical dilemma. Communicators in the medical field are now given the ample resources of today’s media to spread medical knowledge to the general public. One major issue still exists however and that is how the average citizen obtains this information.

Medical communicators have realized from the data that it is not the quantity of information presented rather the quality presented to the public. Many in the medical communication field have “agendas” as to what they want to publish to the public. As Medical communication companies have the dilemma of properly educating the public or follows the pre determined agenda.

In the article they went about the findings looking into the statistics gathered by the National Health Council. According to the National Health Council there are many methods in which the general public uses to seek medical knowledge. Majority of the public to no surprise accesses their information from television for their main medical news source. Also much of the general public turns to journals as well as articles written by medical professionals as well as physicians. In this day in age this is not very efficient in obtaining information as majority of people use the Internet, and social media outlets to gain information. Medical Communicators are trained to engage readers into information which some consider being bland and boring.

There is much value for this research that is presented in the article.

Medical information is information that is of much value to society. If one is not informed it could lead to an increased chance in a medical issue arising due to ignorance. Conversely if one is properly educated it is pheasble that that individual will handle a medical situation will be handled properly. Overall, this article has a great deal of information to be passed on and is a great representation of Communication Ethics.

Health Communication Ethics


Since ancient times the term ‘‘medicine’’ has been used to denote both the science and the means of healing, and writers have been the ones to communicate all that it encompasses. However, it was the modern public’s thirst for accurate, timely health and medical information that paved the way for the formation of the health commu- nication ® eld and the training of professional communicators of health and medical knowledge.

Today, health communicators have unique opportunities. Instantaneous com- munication technologies o􏱏 er the ability to match the pace of scienti® c discovery now more than at any other time in history. And yet, the general public’s core knowledge of health and medicine wanes. Much of this is because of the way the public obtains health information, recently termed by The EconomistÐ ‘‘a dumbing down that panders to inanity, prurience and prejudice.’’

Despite the public zeal for health news, many health communicators realize that the increasing quantity of information does not necessarily translate into quality information. The burden of quality falls on the sender of the information, in most cases, the writer. Whether serving as the principal contributor or as an editor or producer, the writer begins the agenda-setting process for what health and medicine information the public receives. Therefore, an ethical health and medical communi- cation corps is needed to develop a health literate public.

How the Public Obtains Health Information

A December 1997 study by the National Health Council indicated that most Amer- icans (40%) turn to television as a health and medical news source. This is closely followed by health care professionals (physicians, pharmacists, and nurses) (39%), magazines and journals (35%), daily newspapers (16%), and radio news (4%). Although the Internet is a fast-growing health and medical information source, according to this study, it is not used as frequently as traditional media (only 2%).

Who is Responsible

The health and medical writers and producers who create stories for the public are trained to look for concrete, emotional anecdotes that breathe life into the transfer of information. The picture impressed on the reader’s or viewer’s mind typically wins out over ‘‘cold, lifeless’’ data. If communicating health and medicine degener- ates into infotainment, the impact on the public could be reduced to that of shows like Entertainment Tonight. Because health and medical information is often pre- sented to the public anachronistically and out of context, public trust of scientists and the media erodes. Are we surprised then, when individuals grapple with the con ̄ icting information they receive and, ultimately, do not modify harmful behaviors ?

The current environment of health information dissemination places a great ethical burden on those who craft health and medical stories. There is pressure to

Scott C. Ratzan, MD, MPA is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Health Communication. He is Execu- tive Director, Health Communication Technology and Educational Innovation Academy for Educational Development, Washington, D.C., and also on the faculty of Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

Journal of Health Communication, Volume 3, pp. 291¬ 294, 1998 Copyright Ó 1998 Taylor & Francis

1081-0730/ 98 $12.00 1 .00 291

Downloaded by [Eastern Michigan University] at 17:59 05 October 2015

292 Editorial

‘‘sell’’ a story, and to be the ® rst, best, and only one with the story. Although those who communicate about health and medicine are a diverse, multi-disciplinary group, I would all like to think we share an ideal of trying to communicate valuable information in the most e􏱏 ective way. However, we must also be aware of the unin- tended e􏱏 ects on our audiences.

The burden for accuracy and responsibility falls not only on health and medical communicators, but on the entertainment



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