Injecting the Media into H1N1

by Rachel Ball, photo courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Guest speaker Robert Logan discussed H1N1 and its media coverage at the distinguished lecture program in honor of William S. Morris III on April 15 at the Lubbock Country Club.

Logan, a member of the senior staff of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, said he was a faculty member at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism when he got a call from the National Institutes of Health to run a major division about public understanding and health in medicine.

He said the National Library of Medicine is the world’s largest medical storehouse and one of 27 institutes within the National Institutes of Health.

He said the library was the repository for all the H1N1 sequences, and it also developed the flu map many news organizations ran, which showed where flu occurrence was across the country.

He said Medline Plus is a Web site offered by the National Library of Medicine as a service to the public. He said it covers major health topics as well as the health topic page for H1N1.

“There are more than 900 health topic pages that cover every imaginable disease or condition,” Logan said.

Roger Saathoff, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism in the College of Media & Communication, said it was engaging to hear about the roles the institute plays. “It was interesting to hear how the government works,” Saathoff said, “and how this particular group distributes information.”

Logan also addressed H1N1 facts. He said about 26,000 people were hospitalized with H1N1 and approximately 12,000 people died from H1N1, which is compared to the 36,000 people who die annually from seasonal flu.

He said he attended a lecture by the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services at the National Academy of Sciences a month ago. Logan said it was a self-evaluation of how government officials felt they performed in handling H1N1.

He said, among other things in the lecture, they discussed the use of social media. He said it was the first time federal agencies used their Web sites to communicate to the public about H1N1.

“The Centers for Disease Control used social media extensively for the first time during a pandemic,” Logan said.

Saathoff said social media is an effective tool to get information out to the public.

“They are talking about over 100 million people that are on social media,” Saathoff said, “so what quicker way to get information out, to warn people or to alert people to something?”

“Did H1N1 contribute to health literacy or improve it among people, or did it exacerbate it and make things worse? That is the kind of question we should be asking.”
— Robert Logan

Logan said some issues the media covered frequently included the spread of H1N1 across the country, the number of cases and their severity, and the spread of H1N1 across college campuses in fall.

On the other hand, he cited issues the government left out of its self-evaluation, which it covered very infrequently.

He said one key issue was a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association which presented evidence that population vaccination makes a difference in all levels of society.

He said people who conducted the population vaccination studies thought it would be a major news story. He said they were surprised and disappointed when they received very minor coverage.

He said results are mixed as far as H1N1 media coverage.

“The government health care delivery system and the news media seemed to learn a little bit in the past, but as always there is ample room for improvement starting with the things that we do every day.”

He said one of the core problems with patients in the U.S. is some 100 million Americans do not understand the labeling on over-the-counter prescriptions. He said health literacy is now in itself a major area of concern.

“Did H1N1 contribute to health literacy or improve it among people?” Logan said, “or did it exacerbate it and make things worse? That is the kind of question we should be asking.”

He said one of the positive outcomes of the H1N1 media coverage was the evolution of a collaboratory science and the public.

“I think the thing that is on the positive side that’s exciting that H1N1 showed,” Logan said, “it created an enlarged and attentive health (audience)."

Terry Greenberg, editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, assessed positively what Logan had to say.

“He basically gave you the entire picture,” Greenberg said. “Media could have done better, medical community could have done better, patients themselves, the American public, so if there were problems in disseminating info about H1N1, we were all to blame.” mc

Rachel Ball is a senior public relations major from College Station, Texas.