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Tips to Ensure Accuracy in Health Writing
Tuesday, June 11, 2013 (All day)

Writing about health issues is rewarding because you are sharing information about new drugs, treatment options or study findings that may help people. But health writing also comes with an added responsibility for accuracy that goes beyond the usual due diligence, because some readers may be desperately seeking answers about life-threatening conditions and diseases.

Here are five tips to help ensure your health writing is accurate:

1. Use reputable sources: Interview doctors, researchers or other reputable health experts for key quotes to support the story. In addition to interviewing the principal investigator or lead scientist, make sure you also speak to an expert who was not involved, as they may be more inclined to dish about a study’s limitations and help you present a balanced perspective. Find background information about health issues at reputable websites such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), Medline Plus (U.S. National Institutes of Health) or sites affiliated with major medical universities such as the Harvard School of Public Health.

2. Ensure evidence and study references are up to date: Health research is an ongoing process, so make sure your study references are current, within the last year or two if possible. Find the most recently published studies using advanced search filters on Medline Plus and PubMed databases. Cochrane Reviews are large-scale summaries of all primary research available on specific health questions and are considered to be the highest standard in health research information. Another reason to make sure your work is up to date is that sometimes studies get retracted if they are discovered to have used falsified data or improper research methods. Find out more about retractions and how they are on the rise at Retraction Watch.

3. Understand statistics: Health writers often have to read jargon-packed clinical studies full of numbers and statistics, so it helps if you have taken a stats course or two. Coursera offers the University of Toronto’s Statistics: Making Sense of Data for free online. For a handy reference, refer to the glossary in Chapter 5 of The Science Writers’ Handbook, where you can brush up on confidence intervals, p-values, absolute vs. relative risk, odds ratios vs. hazard ratios and other common terms.

4. Read the full study and read more than one: When researching a story, don’t rely on just an abstract or—gasp—a press release. Always read the full study to understand the research design, the study’s limitations and the authors’ take on what the findings mean. The full study will also have details about side effects and adverse events that may not be disclosed elsewhere. As well, make sure to read more than one study: “Covering single clinical trials is like writing about companies’ quarterly earnings reports,” said Ron Winslow, deputy bureau chief, health and science at The Wall Street Journal, in a recent panel presentation for health care journalists.

5. Footnotes for fact checking: Some clients will fact check your work with their legal department before publication, so ensure that all of your facts are accurate and any conclusions you are drawing based on study findings are fair and balanced. Editors appreciate receiving both a clean draft and one with footnotes, so they can read the story for flow without visual distraction and submit the footnoted version to legal if needed.

Jane Langille is a Toronto-area professional health writer who writes stories for print and online publications and custom content for health care organizations and brands. She is a member of PWAC Toronto Chapter, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the International Association of Business Communicators.

 

 

- Jane Langille

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