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‘Think health, think Medical Doctor’ posturing of the media deadly [Article]

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This article has been necessitated by my longtime observation that the Ghanaian media treat health in a restricted, straightjacket manner. The WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This will inform even a lay person that health is a multifaceted, multi-sectoral issue.

In terms of therapy, there is conventional/western/allopathic medicine and alternative medicine (which may include naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic and Ayurveda).  Allopathic therapy is the most practiced system in most parts of the world. In Ghana, our hospitals are mostly allopathic. Professionals working in the allopathic system may include the medical doctor, the pharmacists, the dietician, the psychologist, the radiographer, the physiotherapist, the midwife and the nurse.  Public health professionals, sociologists and academics all have significant roles to play in our health system.

So it’s interesting that whenever there is a health topic being discussed in the media one is more likely to hear a Medical Doctor. This, I attribute to lack of knowledge and inadequate professional training of media practitioners.

The lack of knowledge stems from lack of research. The late astute American science fiction writer Robert Shekley said, “Before you can ask an intelligent question, you must already know more than half the answer.” Reading around a subject as a producer gives you enough insight into which aspects need more explanation, which aspects are more controversial and therefore need clarification and which issues have been least talked about and therefore need more information. Your research will also guide you as to whether to invite an optician, an optometrist or an ophthalmologist for a discussion on the eye. It is when we have been able to pay attention to these details that we are ready to inform the public. Anything short of this will result in shoddy production – the ‘anything goes’ syndrome.

I will share a personal experience with you on the importance of research. I nearly hosted a woman who goes about calling herself a dietician. And she uses the “Doctor” title. My producer had to call her to cancel her appointment when we read about her. Not only has she not acquired a PhD, she didn’t even have a first degree. She has a certificate in professional NGO, Management, Governance and Human Relations, which she acquired from from Pan-African Institute, Ghana. Then she pursued a strategic Management Programme at Graduate Training Institute, Ghana. Never mind that these programmes have nothing to do with diet/nutrition; how does one acquire a PhD with such a level of education? And yet this is a woman who had been on several health talk shows proffering advice on diet. A clear case of a charlatan misinforming the audience! It will only take a little bit of research to keep such people at bay.

Lack of professional training mostly results in lack of focus of topics. Most often than not, topics discussed tend to be too broad for any meaningful, exhaustive discussion within the allotted time. For example, if a producer decides to discuss HIV/AIDS he/she must first decide whether he/she wants to discuss allopathic therapy or alternative medicine. He/she then must decide which aspect of HIV/AIDS he wants to discuss. If he decides that he wants to look at how one can use diet to improve conditions of people living with the disease he may need a dietician. If he decides that he wants to discuss the social support system for people living with the disease, he may need to get a psychologist, a sociologist and/or someone living with the disease. If he decides to look at diagnosis, drugs and prevention, he may need a Medical Doctor for the discussion.

Another critical thing that should be considered is to run a detailed background check/probe along guests’ areas of expertise. For instance, even among nutritionists, there are some who have done more research work and are experts in infant nutrition while others have in-depth knowledge and experience in dealing with food nutrient composition. On the surface, you may have a nutritionist in the studio but there could be another nutritionist who is more suited for the topic.

But the realization is that most of our producers will bring the MD to discuss HIV/AIDs and attempt to look at everything AIDS within a very limited time. The result is that while you pose questions from nutrition, psychology, sociology to an MD who may have limited knowledge in these fields you also do not give your audience enough time to understand the various aspects well. The result is a piecemeal approach to communication which may end up confusing your audience.

The media practice which says that if one is not a medical doctor then one cannot talk about health issues is restrictive and exclusionist. It has to change.

I observed with amazement how listeners called into my health show (as a host) with their questions and sometimes refer to my guests as “Doctor” when in those cases my guests were neither medical doctors nor PhD holders. Is it therefore surprising that anybody who sees himself as a health practitioner goes about carrying the title “Doctor”?

As a media we should be magnanimous enough to accept that we have contributed immensely to the creation of this monster. ]

So before you go out there and treat any topic, ask yourself these questions: Have I done enough reading around the topic? Is my topic focused enough?, Do I have the right person to address the topic? It is after you have answered yes to these questions that you are ready to inform and educate the public. We should strive at all times to have the right information delivered to listeners and readers.  It is called professionalism.

By: Kwaku Botwe (Broadcast Journalist)

krufibotwe@gmail.com