After reading yet another article in a leading newspaper on how stem cells are helping paralysed patients to walk, I spoke to the journalist to ask him why they were continuing to misinform patients. The use of stem cells has been hyped so much, that most "clinical use" of stem cells in India now is an abuse. Private clinics have mushroomed all over the country, where cardiologists, neurologists and orthopedic surgeons have all jumped onto the stem cell bandwagon, claiming that these "miracle magic cells" cure everything from paraplegia to heart failure to arthritis. The sad truth is that while stem cells may hold a lot of promise, a lot of this is just that - promise. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to convert this promise into reality and both patients and doctors need to acknowledge this fact. By making such brazen , unsupported ( read false) claims, both doctors and journalists are doing a dis-service to patients, their profession, themselves and society.
Doctors are actually harming themsleves by over-promising and under-delivering. To grab their 15 minutes of attention, they concoct all kinds of rubbish - and it's still surprisingly easy to hoodwink unsophisticated reporters who are often medically naive. I can understand why doctors do this, however. Each media story gets them a fresh influx of new patients - and lots of moolah ! It's hard to say no to money and a newspaper story, so most doctors are quite happy to learn from the media stars; and since doctors are quite savvy, they employ PR agents to help get their name out in the press.
But why do journalists, who are supposed to be sophisticated professionals, whose expertise lies in reporting the truth, fall for this ?
Reporters have to live with deadlines and they are under constant pressure to report "news". Their editors pressurise them to dig up positive stories about Indian doctors, to offer a "feel-good" flavour to the reader. Stories about the cutting edge" of medical techology are always well-read - and will usually secure a by-line for the reporter. These are human interest stories, and are often featured prominently in the paper. Also, there is lots of competition amongst journalists for stories, and many of them are afraid to displease these media-savvy doctors, as some competitor may get the next scoop !
However, it's not just the journalists who are to blame ! They are not gullible, but they are not medical specialists either ! This reporter told me that when he asks other doctors for their opinion, so they can provide a balanced article as well as an alternative point of view ( something which is basic to all fair reporting), many doctors flatly refuse to criticise another doctor in the media. While they are extremely happy to bad mouth these doctors and backbite about them ( the amount of medical politics which goes on is mind-boggling !) , they do not have the courage of their convictions to say so aloud ! They refuse to "go on record" and refuse to stick their neck out in public. This is a shame. By refusing to criticise bad doctors, they are abdicating their responsibility and actually encouraging bad doctors to flourish. They are scared to be critical of other doctors because they do not want to break the bonds of professional collegiality. I think this is ridiculous. Ethical doctors - or those who think they are ethical - have a responsibility to be honest and to prevent medical malpractise. They need to acknowledge that the media has a very important role to play in educating the public - and that good doctors need to partner with the media, to ensure that medical stories and honest and factual. By keeping quiet, they are actually being cowardly ,unethical and dishonest. The fact that full-time professors in medical colleges refuse to be quoted is especially disheartening. These are academic professionals, to whom journalists should be able to turn to for an honest unbaised free and frank opinion , because they do not have an axe to grind. Unfortunately, even these leaders of the profession prefer to criticise journalists for carrying poor quality stories, instead of actively contributing to ensure that the stories are reliable and accurate ! They need to have the courage of their convictions , rather than just behave as docile impotent back-benchers.
If leading doctors will not accept responsibility for policing the medical profession and for keeping doctors honest , then they really should not complain about these poor quality stories ! If you are not part of the solution, this means you are part of the problem !