This morning on ABC 774 radio, Kathy Bedford, a temporary morning announcer, raised the matter of a brutal assault on Dr Mukesh Haikerwell, past President of the AMA, that resulted in his being admitted to the Western General Hospital in suburban Melbourne for ‘brain surgery’. Fortunately he is recovering well but will need rehabilitation. Had Kathy focussed on the brutality of the assault on a gentle man who has done so much to improve health care, or even on the nature of his injury and what can be done to save lives and prevent permanent damage in such cases, she might have engaged her audience meaningfully. Instead, she played the line that Dr Haikerwell might have received ‘preferential treatment’ by being given neurosurgery at Western General rather than at a large city hospital where such surgery is more commonly performed. She asked: “If Dr Haikerwell could receive surgery there for head injury, why are others transported to city hospitals?”
She carried on this conversation in almost total ignorance of the different types of intracranial bleeding that could occur after head injury. Despite two doctors explaining the different trajectory of different types of intracranial bleeding and the different consequences, she persisted with her ‘preferential treatment’ query. This was despite both doctors explaining that one type of intracranial bleeding following head injury, so-called extradural haemorrhage, requires extremely urgent treatment. Lives can be lost in a matter of minutes unless surgery is undertaken. Not wanting to speculate on Dr Haikerwell’s situation, both doctors emphasized this in general terms, but to make the point, one described a case when despite an urgent operation in the ward immediately on admission, the patient had died.
This did not deter Kathy from her pursuit of the possibility of a well know doctor receiving preferential treatment, even after one doctor informed her that there were neurosurgeons on staff at Western General who regularly performed brain surgery, referring elsewhere only the most complex cases.
Even when she acknowledged receiving a batch of text messages castigating her for her insensitive interview with the doctors, she pressed on, seemingly undaunted. It was as if, having dug herself into a hole, she was determined to dig her way out and restore her credibility.
When radio journalists decide to stretch credulity to make something out of a situation, a so-called ‘beat-up’, they should at least bone up on the technicalities. No one expects journalists to be medical experts, but if Kathy had taken a quick look at Wikipedia beforehand she would have sounded less foolish, and listening attentively to what the experts had to say would have been a sound cautionary move. But the desire to ‘beat-up’ seemed too irresistible.
That this journalism upsets those who know better is bad enough; what is worse is that the public may be mislead and persuaded to the view that this patient did unfairly receive preferential treatment because he was a well-known doctor, which was the whole point of her story.
The media has the capacity to influence thinking profoundly. It needs to be very careful how it promulgates information, and sensitive to its ‘rabble-rousing’ potential if it gets its facts wrong, if it interprets them incorrectly, and especially if it indulges in blatant ‘beat-ups’ in pursuit a ‘good story’.