Health + Medicine: reflections on our first year

The Conversation’s health coverage: policy, chiropractic, obesity and medicine. AAP, Planetc1.com, Puuiki Beach, LJA Kliche

In The Conversation’s first editorial meeting editor Andrew Jaspan explained what he wanted to achieve with the site: a more informed level of debate, based on evidence, research and expert opinion.

It was frustrating, he said, that scientists and other experts were often pitted against non-experts in news stories. And because they were given the same amount of space and were quoted alongside each other, readers might consider the two voices equally informed on a topic.

And so, The Conversation was born. From March 2011, experts had another platform from which to share evidence-based research, information and opinion with a general but curious audience. Perhaps most importantly, readers could join the discussion, share their insights and even interrogate the evidence.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that one of the biggest ongoing debates we’ve hosted on the health and medicine page is the role of alternative therapies in the marketplace and in Australian universities. Or, as some see it, the fight for evidence-based medicine and health care.

Some of our authors felt alternative therapies and medicines were misleading consumers by claiming their unproven therapies worked. At best, patients were being ripped off. At worst, they were steered away from potentially life-saving treatments.

Debates about whether chiropractic should be taught at universities are ongoing. Aidan Jones

Marcello Costa kicked off the debate back in March last year – our first week of publishing – with a neuroscientist’s view on chiropractic. He said children should be spared from this quackery, particularly given the discipline wasn’t based on credible scientific evidence.

But not all chiropractors are the same, explained chiropractic lecturer Peter Tuchin. Spinal manipulation therapy, which forms the base of modern chiropractic, is based on evidence as it’s as effective as standard medicine at alleviating back pain. The outdated practice of “vertical subluxation”, however, shouldn’t be promoted.

More recently, John Dwyer and his colleagues founded a group called Friends of Science in Medicine. There’s no place for pseudo-scientific chiropractic in Australian universities, Dwyer wrote. Judging by your comments, many of you agreed; some didn’t.

Mickey Liew

But the complementary therapies debate also went beyond chiropracitic, into naturopathy, homeopathy and alternative therapy regulation. We all thought it might crescendo with the medicines watchdog, the TGA, cracking down on the claims of shonky complementary medicine manufacturers. Five reports have been released but we’re still watching this space.

Another of the founding ideals of The Conversation was to not only publish articles on the problems we face as a society, but to get the best minds in the country to canvass solutions. And we’ve certainly heard some innovative solutions to one of the concerning public health issues: obesity.

Last month David Dunstan told us how he’d quit sitting at work, and if we did the same (or at least got up out of our chair regularly) we could decrease our risk of heart attack and stroke. Other solutions included taxing unhealthy foods, subsidising fruits and vegetables, improving food labelling, rethinking our city planning, and encouraging kids to get active from an earlier age.

Positive image: Zoe prepares for work. Isaac Brown

Still on obesity, one of the most divisive debates we’ve hosted on the site was spurred by an article from Lauren Gurrieri and Isaac Brown, both from Griffith University, on a new image library that presents obese people in positive, natural poses. The image library creators were sick of journalists only having access to stereotypical lazy, undisciplined, and slovenly representations of heavy people.

With 243 comments, it’s one of our most talked about pieces and the follow-up articles keep coming. Jessica Browne and Jane Speight told the “fatists” to back off – blaming people for obesity doesn’t help anyone. Fat studies researcher Cat Pause asked why we think it’s okay to laugh at fat people. And Lesley Campbell explained, counter-intuitively, that some overweight and obese people can be perfectly healthy.

Flickr/foshydog

Another thing we did in our first year was interrogate some of the unexamined ideas and assumptions that seem to so readily take up residence in our brains. It turns out we shouldn’t be so quick to believe our parents, friends and trashy lifestyle websites about all things health. Our Monday’s medical myths series has slowly been subjecting this health mythology to scientific scrutiny and giving us the evidence to say, with some certainty, that mixing drinks won’t leave us with a worse hangover, reading in dim light won’t ruin our eyesight, and no, you can’t catch a cold by getting cold.

I originally envisaged it as a short series, debunking some of the most common myths like “drink eight glasses of water a day”, “sugar makes kids hyperactive” and “we only use 10% of our brains” but, ten months later, we’re still not short of ideas. Thanks to regulars Tim Crowe, Merlin Thomas, Michael Vagg and newcomer Michael Tam for making the series a success.

Geoff Drummond (seated) with Rodney Syme, chairman of Dying with Dignity Victoria.

Other series we’ve run on the health and medicine page have looked at the world’s biggest public health challenge: Non-communicable diseases. And we started a conversation that many of us shy away from – about death and dying, which included a moving final instalment by Geoffrey Drummond, with his personal account of life with terminal cancer.

We also separated the myths about dieting from the realities of exercise and nutrition in The science behind weight loss – which include many of our most read articles. And our mammoth series on transparency in medicine starts today.

To mark our first anniversary we’ll be introducing a new feature this week – author blogs. Michael Vagg, senior lecturer at Deakin University’s School of Medicine and pain specialist at Barwon Health will bring you Medicandus – a second opinion on health care and medical science. And Ian Musgrave, senior pharmacology lecturer at the University of Adelaide, will blog about all matters toxic, all around us in Paracelsus’ Poison.

So stay tuned.


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