Random thoughts on the media and healthcare

Every so often some one wonders aloud where there isn’t more good news reported. The BBC host Martyn Lewis , for instance, has been prominent in this, no doubt tired of having to read out news scripts full of doom and gloom during his career. Indeed, I discovered when looking up Martyn Lewis’ stance the site Positive News, which is all about Positive News.

And yet, the Daily Mail – which whatever else one can say, does not exactly put a positive, shiny, happy spin on the news – is the world’s most popular news website. We may say otherwise when asked, but we are drawn to the disastrous and doomy, or at least what can be portrayed as disastrous and doomy.


Someone – maybe Neil Postman – once observed that trust in media tends to erode dramatically when one considers the media coverage of something one actually knows about. If the media doesn’t get My Area right, why should I trust them on economics, or politics, or healthcare? This is even more pronounced in the current age where high-quality information on any technical topic is easily accessible with a little effort; the oft-lazy, unnuanced approach of much media. This is the other side of the clickbait we are drowning in.

In health care, there are a vast amount of interactions the vast majority of which are unremarkable or positive. Yet these don’t – and probably will never – get reported. Positive initiatives will get some media coverage  but this will be drowned out by controversy and scandal. This is the way of the world, and clearly has a role in ensuring good practice. One must also recognise, however, that this can distort our view not only of healthcare practice but of what we want to achieve. “Staying out of the papers” becomes an aim in itself, and leads to a reluctance to engage in any positive discourse for fear of being portrayed as pollyannaish or indifferent.

Interestingly, as a coda to these brief thoughts, consistently polls in Ireland find that doctors are the most trusted profession – in 2016 and in 2011. The comparative figures for other professions – especially the media and TDs – are interesting!




Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures, Inis Childrens Magazine/Childrens Books Ireland, November 2014

From Childrens Books Ireland, a capsule review of a childrens book about medicine. The van Tulleken brothers strike me as quite admirable in their enthusiastic multimedia presence. Again, perhaps a wry scepticism about history-from-below is evident. I didn’t have space to note that while the entries on Fleming, Nightingale and most other figures in the book are irreverent, that on Seacole is very sober and straight-laced:

Operation Ouch! Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures
Chris van Tulleken and Xand van Tulleken

History traditionally focused on what were deemed great events – sometimes caricatured as the ‘maps and chaps’ approach. In recent decades, ‘history from below’ has gained in academic prestige, with everyday life and consideration of marginalised, under-documented groups being the focus. The huge popularity of the Horrible Histories series has shown the appeal of history-from-below in a perhaps more literal sense – their focus on bodily functions and gross-out humour may not be to everyone’s taste, but they do provide a gateway into reading about the everyday life of the past.

The van Tulleken twins are Oxford medical graduates who have carved a niche for themselves as presenters of the CBBC series Operation Ouch! This book is the second tie-in volume; the first, Your Brilliant Body, won the 9-11 Best Fact Book award at the Booktrust Best Book Awards in 2014. Medical Milestones and Crazy Cures is formatted as a series of dialogues between the brothers on various parts of the body, interspersed with short profiles of medical notables and some quirky activities that will get the target readership’s attention.

The history-from-below emphasis is even apparent in the vignettes on pioneers of healthcare, with the Jamacian-born Mary Seacole, about whom very little is reliably known, given equal prominence with Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming and the rest. The brothers’ dialogues don’t entirely work on the printed page, but that aside this is a handsomely produced tie-in that combines medical history with bodily functions in a way that will appeal to the target readership.