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Indian mythology speaks of two kinds of murkhas (idiots). Today's news media seems to be blessed with both.

If you’ve GONE viral, you can overthrow a dictator or spark a revolution. If you’ve GOT viral, you could cough on someone’s face and spread a fever. In this age of news media and ubiquitous technology forming a lethal combination, a simple typo could be the difference between activist stardom and lame illness. When news-media reports on healthcare, there is a lot more at stake.

On October 20, 2008, the last page (sports page) of the Times of India had an article titled “Miracle man for Sania”. It was about a physiotherapist, Jatin Chaudhary, who had ‘successfully’ treated cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s shoulder and Sania Mirza’s wrist injury. The media had just made him a super star and a household name.

The article claimed Chaudhary was one of 12 people in the world who had specialized in ‘spiral therapy’ (the regeneration of cells), besides being a Ph.D. in Sports Medicine. This article had attributed the following quote to Chaudhary – “According to me you only need surgery when you have a fracture and your bone is broken, and you need to fix it with nails or a rod”. In another article, he was reported to have commented on Yuvraj’s knee, “..a ligament that was missing started to reappear after 10 days of treatment.”

To me these comments didn’t seem appropriate coming from a scientifically trained individual; they sounded more like a god-man’s claims. But I must admit, it did sound very sensational and appeared to be ground-breaking news. So why question or investigate further and spoil the story?

On February 7, 2012, it was Chaudhary again who broke the news of Yuvraj Singh’s cancer. All news channels and print media carried the ‘breaking news’. One newspaper’s headline read – “Yuvraj Singh’s cancer is curable: Physio”. Oncology (medical field dealing with cancer) is a super-speciality in medicine for which doctors spend over 10 years of very technical and specialized education post high school.

But with his comment Chaudhary didn’t hesitate to take on the medical fraternity without being qualified. He is a physiotherapist and doesn’t even hold a basic bachelor’s degree in medicine. I would have thought it common sense that physiotherapists aren’t trained to comment at all on cancer. Even if the journalist in question wasn’t aware, he should have done a check on his source.

The very next day, there were articles titled “Yuvraj’s physio turns out to be fake” and other headlines on similar lines. Delhi Medical Council’s (DMC) anti-quackery cell was the one alleging the same, stating that several complaints had been lodged against Chaudhary way back in 2009 for practicing Allopathic Medicine. A news report is all it takes to rise to stardom and crash to scorn.

Recently a patient friend enlightened me that Indian mythology speaks of two kinds of murkhas (idiots). One is the Ravana kind – intelligent, but won’t do the right thing for one or the other reason. Second is the Duryodhana kind – who can’t differentiate between good and bad, right and wrong. I wonder which ones are more dangerous? Today’s news media seems to be blessed with both. They sensationalize news, including healthcare, wellness and fitness, and being a healthcare professional I find it most alarming.

In entertainment news, a hysterical, voyeuristic or lazy news report might annoy but won’t have a direct impact on your health. But when it comes to medical news it could have more direct and lasting effects.

In their keenness to be the first ones to report medical and healthcare breakthroughs, news reporters seem to ignore checking their authenticity. It’s in the interest of the healthcare industry to talk about ‘achievements’ and sometimes misrepresent them. It’s in the interest of news outlets not to become willing or active participants in dishonest health reporting. It is important not to be compromised by being co-opted by interested parties in doing reports, and at the same time not go to the other extreme and do exposes and stings operations without understanding the technical and scientific aspects of medical stories. Especially when the media seems to have the power to execute people without a fair trial.

On February 12, 2012 the Times of India had a centre page story titled “Op (Operation) tall claims”. Not a bad story criticizing the healthcare industry, which at the drop of a hat claims “path-breaking records” and “landmark feats”. The only problem being, that the same publication, had made ‘tall claims’ of their own only one month earlier. The story titled “Get 110% out of your body with Functional Manual Therapy” on the front page.

This part of a venture called Vardan – live efficient. What’s fascinating is that the venture being spoken about is actually co-owned by the same media house reporting it. On the other hand the same publication is passing judgment on others in the healthcare industry. To add to this, the heading of this title is either scientifically flawed or is a simple lie. It is impossible to get 110% out of a 100%. They further go on to claim to be the first of its kind centre in India. That too is untrue. I myself have been part of two such set-ups in Delhi and Bangalore. Lazy reporting or compromised reporting? You decide.

On a slightly different note, on December 15, 2011 the Times of India again reported an incident where a student in a school died after having won a race at an athletic competition. The article suggested that the school was responsible for the death. They also suggested that all students should have a medical test before participating in any sort of sports competitions. How practical is this?

On the same page another article educated us on the perils of physical activity, just falling short of saying – Running Kills. To me this is very irresponsible reporting. The reporters were excited to have found masala for a story but did you notice the tone of the articles? It’s basically saying: don’t move, live to eternity. Lazy or crazy?

How often do we see news reports about millions of deaths that happen due to heart attacks every year helped along by the inactivity of couch potatoes watching saas-bahu soaps, or sensational news reports on television? I’ve yet to see one. So then why crucify exercise, the one thing that has been proven to have amazing benefits for almost all medical conditions?

In the first week of December 2011, news items on a medical research study, with headlines such as – Marathon training “may pose a heart risk” shook the world of sports, and running in particular. It was only in the sub-heading that it said that “doing extreme endurance exercise, like training for a marathon, can damage the heart, research reveals.”

The news article was quoting super-experts from a study published online in the European Heart Journal on December 6, 2011, titled Exercise-induced Right Ventricular Dysfunction and Structural Remodeling in Endurance Athletes. Its lead author, André La Gerche, MBBS, PhD, and associated with the University of Melbourne in Australia, is a marathon runner himself. If he considers long distance running such a risk it would be great to ask him to include in the report why he indulges in this ‘risky’ activity. The problem is not limited to reporters alone but also medical professionals.

The first thing I look for in any ‘scientific paper’ is who sponsored the study. In the case above on the ‘risky’ business of long distance running it happens to be Pfizer – the world’s second largest pharmaceutical company and the biggest spender on research and reports. They spend billions of dollars every year.

It is in any company’s interest to selling more of its product – in this case medicines and pharmaceuticals. There is one magic pill however that helps in fighting all diseases but it is free and no one holds the patent and rights – exercise.

Would it then help any pharma company if people stayed fitter and healthier? Would it be in their interest in discouraging people from being physically active? Do more sick people mean better business?

The medical director of the London Marathon, Dr Sanjay Sharma, professor of Clinical Cardiology at St George’s University Hospital, wrote an editorial accompanying the article on marathon running. The following quote in a sense gave a stamp of approval to this study: “The potential for such projects is enormous considering the colossal increase in participation rates in endurance events such as the marathon.” In my opinion that’s a very irresponsible statement by someone in his position. ‘Ravana’, I might add. And in this case one can’t blame the reporter.

During the Mahabharata, when Guru Droncharya (whose son was Ashwathama) was wreaking havoc on the Pandavas, Krishna came up with a wicked plan to get rid of him. Yudhistar, who was known for always speaking the truth, yelled, “Ashwathama has been killed”. On hearing this, Guru Droncharya dropped his weapons and sat down on the ground. Yudhistar continued – “… Ashwathama the elephant”. In the mean time, Guru Droncharya was beheaded.

Similarly, these very good and accomplished scientists and doctors are telling the truth, but only half the truth. Is it because their sponsor has a vested interest in these results, or is it because these well-intentioned colleagues of mine don’t know what the implications of this kind of study would be on the general population, which is always looking for an excuse not to move? Maybe not compromised but just lazy.

People who read this kind of medical research tend not to look beyond the headline and some key points. The same researchers in their report on endurance exercises also mentioned that the damage reported was ‘temporary’ and the study was ‘too small to assess clinical outcomes.’ This is key. This is as important as the headline. The researchers also have another disclaimer – their findings should not be taken to mean that endurance exercise is unhealthy (it comes in too late and has been ignored by most publications reporting this story). Because of this kind of reportage, and also because people do not delve deeper into research reports, the most basic form of physical exercise (running) suffers.

Back in 2006, Medscape, a Web resource for physicians and other health professionals, organized a panel discussion on “Exercise in the Age of Evidence-Based Medicine”. Paul Thompson, Director (Division of Cardiology) at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, US, summed up the issue: “I don’t want any comments about the risks of exercise to be an impediment to physicians recommending exercise for their patients because of numerous benefits.” You see exercise is the first active choice we make towards wellness and healing. It’s free, and from Yoga to aerobics to pilates to simply running, its effectiveness can not be overstated. Yet often the ‘risks’ associated with this basic human function get media coverage that is alarming. Thing about it – how do the disadvantages of physical exercise weigh against physical inactivity?

Shouldn’t the media be more responsible in handling these situations? I’m so glad, that once in a while, the media does end up reporting news as shown below. And now that you’ve spent enough time reading this, get off your butt and go run! Clock a few miles of your own.

 

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