The McGovern and Alvarez Award speakers are the highlight of every AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Conference (aside from the exceptional education, of course). This year, we are especially privileged to have not 1, but 2 McGovern Award winners (and no, that’s not because of a mix up with envelopes). The 2017 McGovern Award recognizes the work of 2 physicians who have spent more than 20 years working to improve the communication of medical evidence to physicians, journalists, policy makers, and the public so they can make wiser decisions.
This year, the award goes to Steven Woloshin, MD, MS, and Lisa M. Schwartz, MD, MS, who are general internists, Professors of Medicine and Community & Family Medicine, and co-Directors of the Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. These 2 physicians are my heroes because of their commitment to improving the quality of messages directed at lay audiences. (I am a certified groupie, referencing at least 5 to 10 articles by this team in my workshop or session on writing for lay audiences.) Their work clearly exemplifies the spirit of the McGovern Award, which recognizes a preeminent contribution to any of the various modes of medical communication.
Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz’s outstanding body of research focuses on 5 themes: medicine in the media; the science of effective risk communication; communicating information about prescription drugs; overdiagnosis; and exaggeration in presenting medical evidence.
Medicine in the Media
Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz have explored how journalists present medical science, studying the role of press releases from medical journals and academic centers in the quality of news articles and evaluating reports on presentations at scientific meetings. They urge journalists to approach medicine as skeptically as they do politics and, to help journalists learn how to interpret and report the results of medical research to the public, the researchers developed Medicine in the Media, a 3½-day seminar that has drawn health journalists from around the country and across a range of newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio health programs (and a shorter version for the MIT Medical Evidence Bootcamp). The resources for the seminar include a list of questions to guide reporting and a numbers glossary, both of which can help any medical writer understand medical research and its implications more clearly.
In researching the science of effective risk communication, the husband-and-wife team have studied numeracy skills among patients, assessed patients’ ability to understand medical statistics, developed a medical data interpretation test, created charts to put disease risks into context, and discussed statistical literacy among both physicians and patients. They wrote Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics, which was selected by the National Library of Medicine for inclusion in their Bookshelf, where it is available as a free download, and collaborated with the National Cancer Institute to create a new website to more effectively present population health statistics.
Information on Prescription Drugs
Since the early 2000s, Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz have worked with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement Drug Facts Boxes, simple 1-page summaries of drug benefits, harms, and uncertainties, to help better communicate information about prescription drugs. More recently, the researchers have focused on FDA safety communications and language related to the breakthrough designation.
A central goal of Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz’s work is to help people understand and communicate the tradeoffs between too little diagnosis (missing problems that might benefit from earlier treatment) and overdiagnosis (harming people with problems that never needed to be found). With H. Gilbert Welch, MD, they wrote Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, an excerpt of which was published in The New York Times, and are founding organizers of the international “Preventing Overdiagnosis” meeting, sponsored by British Medical Journal, Dartmouth, Consumers Union and Oxford and Bond Universities (now in its 5th year).
Throughout their research, Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz have worked to address the excessive fear and hope created by exaggerations, distortions, and selective reporting in medical journals, advertising, and health news. To this end, they have contributed to the “Not So Stories” column in the British Medical Journal and to the “Healthy Skepticism” column in The Washington Post, as well as written op-ed pieces for other major newspapers.
I know it seems as if I am gushing about my heroes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that you will hate yourself if you miss Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz’s McGovern Award Address on Friday, November 3, 4:00 to 5:00 PM. Writing simply and clearly is a skill all medical writers need, no matter what setting they work in, so all of us will benefit immensely when this exceptional research team takes the stage to share their expertise.
In a surprising coincidence, Dr. Woloshin and Dr. Schwartz were interviewed a few years back by AMWA member Helen Osborne, MEd, OTR/L, an expert on health literacy who is this year’s Alvarez Award winner. An upcoming AMWA blog will be devoted to Ms. Osborne.