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Do We Need A Journalistic Code of Ethics For Doctor Politicians?

Posted on | October 14, 2013 | No Comments

Mike Magee

There are now 20 doctors in Congress – 16 Republicans and 4 Democrats. That’s pretty significant, especially in an age of transformative health reform and debate.

As the date for the opening of the Affordable Care Act approached, Republican doctor-politicians were pushed far into the limelight by their party to add credibility to the argument that the act was a disaster for the people and the people caring for the people. At least to the casual observer, it didn’t appear that they required much convincing.

They were angry. That much was clear. But were they speaking as politicians or as physicians. And if as physicians, I would like to suggest that they review the Code of Ethics published in 1992 for physician broadcasters. (1,2). The full code included 5 pillar principles – accuracy, continuity, content, independence, and personal rights –  and 25 credos and was published and endorsed by the National Association of Physician Broadcasters(NAPB) in 1991. It can be read HERE. Senator John Barrasso is a past-President of the NAPB.

In JAMA in 1992, I summarized the code as follows: “We believe that information must be up-to-date and accurate, and that areas of controversy or doubt should be clearly defined and communicated with conflicting points of view appropriately represented. We believe that in the pursuit of accuracy and truth, there is a need to function in a fully credible and independent manner with all sources of information fully disclosed….We believe that content selection should be based on its potential positive impact on America’s health and that selection of material based on sensationalism or ratings appeal unaccompanied by redeemable, positive health impact should be avoided.”

When the code was written and endorsed by the organization, there was considerable debate as we sought to balance the roles of physician and journalist. Finding the right words and principles all were willing to sign on to was not easy. Physician politicians face a similar, if not more daunting challenge. It is likely that party leaders on both sides will continue to attempt from time to time to use their physician members as point broadcast communicators to advance their health policy agendas.

What rules or principles will guide these doctor politicians in the future. Are they speaking for patients, or voters; for themselves or their party leadership; for Medicine or for the country? It is unclear. Since Senator Barrasso is an experienced physician broadcaster who lived through the creation of the NAPB’s Code of Ethics, I would suggest that he convene a bipartisan committee of the 20 elected physicians in Congress, and lead an effort to define a Code of Ethics for Physician Politicians who regularly choose to appear as health commentators on national broadcasts.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee

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