Dear The Atlantic, We Have Opinions

When I was applying to medical school, a big part of my spiel was on the importance of connecting the medical profession to the outside world by those inside the community (in my case, I wanted to do it via writing).  It’s quite easy and tempting to speak candidly and frequently with colleagues, who by definition share our professional backgrounds: we are trained similarly, learn similar material, undergo similar challenges on the job, face similar frustrations, and basically just “understand” what it’s like in fewer words.  It’s more of a challenge to communicate to those without a similar professional currency.  It’s time, it’s effort, it’s frankly patience that can sometimes be difficult to muster.

But the alternative is to have those outside the community describing to others outside the community what it’s like from inside the community.  And sometimes it’s misleading, or hits on precisely the wrong points… or both.  If we do not have the time to write, we should at least correct such misinterpretations:

In September 2009, The Atlantic published a piece on teaching ethics to medical students.

The premise was that medical students were getting a surprisingly inadequate foundation in ethics, buttressed by a study published in JAMA by Mayo researchers.  Used as major support for the article’s premise was a startling statistic apparently found in the Mayo study:
Also surprising was the study’s finding that only 14% of those students had an opinion about “appropriate interactions between physicians and pharmaceutical companies.” How could 86% of medical students not even have an opinion on such a hot subject? 

The short answer is, they don’t.  The study did not find that students did not have opinions on these issues; rather it found that students “frequently had opinions inconsistent with the AMA policy on conflicts of interest in relationship with [pharmaceutical] industry.”  When researchers presented scenarios to students, “only 14%… of students’ opinions on relationships with industry aligned with the AMA policy of all 6 scenarios.”  Only about 5%–not 86%, as the journalist claims–did not answer at least one of the industry questions.  So, about 5% of students have at best “incomplete” opinions and at worst no opinions on industry.

We may not agree with the AMA, but we do have opinions.  Quite a difference.

Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that this result was in the abstract of the paper, right under Results.  It is accessible to all and is a mere 342 words long.  (This blog post is 417 words long.)

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