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Opinion: Journalism or Sensationalism

Media is a very powerful force in modern societies and with this power comes an enormous responsibility. There is no shortage of systematic health issues that Indian media could highlight for the benefit of the general public. They could, for example, report on the pathetic state of state provisions of healthcare. They could also talk about path-breaking research that has been published in prestigious journals if the findings are relevant for Indian public. They could highlight Indian research achievements after they have been published in major journals or help disseminate health messages from respected societies.

Dr Kamal Mahawar
Dr Kamal Mahawar

However, time and time again, Indian media falls for the low-lying fruit because everything else takes time and effort. Newspapers are full of rare case reports that have never been published in any scientific journal and stories that carry only sensational value. The saga of Eman Ahmed is a typical case in example.

The doctor-patient relationship is a very private and special bond where doctors do all they can for a patient who trusts them to do their best and has faith in their skills. In this instance, media could easily let the doctors get on with a very challenging patient rather than blowing the whole episode out of proportion. They cannot even imagine the unnecessary burden of expectations that then places on the shoulders of treating units already dealing with myriad other challenges. I simply cannot understand what public interest was served in reporting on this lady’s personal developments on almost a daily basis.

Medicine is not an exact science and surgery, especially complex surgery like bariatric surgery, even less so. I often warn my patients before surgery that though I expect all to go well, in a number of patients things simply won’t and then “you will need to continue to have faith in me for me to be able to save you”. Moreover, all of us know that complications can often take weeks, if not months, to become apparent. So much so that if a patient or family member thanks me the day after surgery, my usual response is “It is a bit soon for all this. I’m sure time for celebrations will come.”

In this instance, media was broadcasting the daily progress of this lady as if this was the most important public health issue facing this country. Who does this help? Does all the media scrutiny help the treating doctors? Does it help the patient? Or does it help the readers to know about one patient’s health issues?

I would have understood (not liked) if only some of the gossip magazines were doing it but this phenomenon did not leave even the most famous media houses in India and abroad. And now the same newspapers are full of reports on how the family is unhappy with the care given. Even before the treating doctors or even a panel of impartial colleagues can examine the situation in detail, a trial is taking place right here in the media. What does this speak of us as a society when we have made a circus of one lady’s very private issues?

Following his graduation from Calcutta Medical College and post graduation from Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, Dr Kamal Mahawar is now a Consultant General and Bariatric Surgeon with Sunderland Royal Hospital in the United Kingdom. He is also an Associate Clinical Lecturer with Newcastle University and editor of renowned scientific journals. His recent book ‘The Ethical Doctor’ published by Harper Collins India examines some of the serious issues affecting Indian healthcare.

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