Health and medical science is complex—but oversight is necessary and often lacking. In the modern world health care is big business, on average 10% of GDP is spent on health goods and services in developed countries. Consequently health care is currently the largest and fastest-growing industry in the world.
Given the importance of health care research, it is therefore not surprising that individual and institutional self-interests in research combined with increased global competition can undermine scientific integrity.
We are keen to ensure that patients and the public are given the correct information about healthcare and that research is translated into clear and tangible messages that the public can understand.
It’s a grandiose aim. We have formed a new centre within the University of Oxford, which will work at the interface of investigative journalism and academic research to hold both public and private institutions to account. The Centre for Governance and Transparency is a unique venture for the university and will form part of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
Journalism can help to ensure that corporations, organisations, governments and individuals are held to account—it is a good platform to spark further debate and ask further questions.
But we want to make sure it is rigorous. By combining academic techniques and using an “evidence based” approach to a subject, we hope to give our journalism added robustness.
In our team we have investigative journalists, clinicians, epidemiologists, statisticians and experts in clinical pharmacology. Between us, we have the skills to appraise and challenge the evidence to ensure that patients and public are not being misguided or misled.
Data journalism, meanwhile, has gained great popularity, but it is difficult to do if robust conclusions or statements are going to be made – particularly when the statements may be defamatory and carry a legal risk—so we will use a prespecified protocol to underpin our work.
This approach has allowed us to highlight questionable practices by individuals, governments and multinationals in the past.
Topics already covered by members of the team using a variety of approaches include: access to clinical trial data and “buried” data; regulation and testing of medical devices; conflicts of interest in policy making and guideline panels; lobbying; the cost of orphan drugs; access to medicines in low and middle income countries; spurious health claims; and, disease mongering and drug marketing.
But we won’t have our own outlet to begin with. We will partner with different media outlets—both academic and mainstream—to present our findings. Public engagement is vital and we aim to make our content relevant to a broad spectrum of people without losing the rigour.
We will also help to guide other journalists when faced with complex data and health stories. If you want to partner with us or have an issue that you think needs exploring do get in touch.