Interviewing sources as a journalist reminds Joyce Ho of probing patients for their stories as a physician in training.
"[Doctors and reporters] are both working toward collecting all the pieces of the puzzle leading up to an event, whether it is a case of pneumonia or a bank robbery," wrote Ho, a student at Stanford University School of Medicine who is the first Stanford-NBC News Global Health Media Fellow, on her global health and media blog.
The Stanford-NBC News program, where Ho is rounding out the first half of her one-year fellowship, is one of several focused on health and journalism. The Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Medical School, affiliated with the Mayo Clinic, and Arizona State University's journalism school have teamed up on the Mayo-Cronkite Fellowship Program, and many schools—including New York University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and University of California—Santa Cruz—offer programs in medical and health reporting and communications.
This recent influx of programs has raised questions from journalists and doctors about the degree to which the collaborations benefit medical and journalism students. Some say that M.D.'s can help journalists better understand the health beat, while others prescribe a "healthy ignorance," rather than medical school credentials, to reporters. Others say that aspiring physicians can improve their bedside interactions with and empathy for patients by studying journalism.
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Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health and a medical journalism professor at NYU, says that when he first applied for health-related journalism jobs, his M.D. from the NYU School of Medicine, which he earned in 1998, helped him get his foot in some doors, but others were shut to him.
"There were editors who assumed, based somewhat understandably on experiences with other doctors who tried to write, that I wouldn't be able to produce anything useful for lay people," says Oransky. "I think that attitude has largely gone away and been replaced by a healthy respect for expertise."
But although newspaper editors—who have neither the resources nor time to train specialists—are increasingly coming to respect M.D.'s as journalism credentials, broadcast media require medical degrees of their correspondents, according to Oransky.
"Clearly, based on who tends to be hired, having an M.D. is a must for many television networks and stations. In fact, you could develop some bad habits ... if you go through your [medical] training," says Oransky, who is also treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ).
Others, such as Andrew Holtz, an independent health journalist and former AHCJ board member, are skeptical about the value of medical school for aspiring health journalists.
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While medical schools focus on basic medical treatments for sick patients, health reporters need to look at larger trends that tend to receive little or no attention in medical school, says Holtz, who holds a master of public health from Portland State University.