Behind the Medical Headlines aims to provide the public and health professionals with authoritative and independent commentaries from leading medical experts on articles or news items which appear in our daily media (nationally and internationally) in an attempt to reduce the confusion which can often arise from conflicting, incomplete or misleading media reports of medical areas.

While a number of existing medical information websites provide disease-specific information or news round-ups, Behind the Medical Headlines has been developed by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh to fill the information gap which can arise from –

confusion caused by media reports on the publication of new scientific studies relating to the same medical area, but with contradictory conclusions;

inaccuracies in some media reporting caused by – difficulties in communicating complex medical information to a non-medical audience; over-zealous sub-editing to make news items/articles ‘fit to size’; and the issuing of press releases, by medical journals, which may not always report limitations in newly published studies – leading to further miscommunication of information;

a reluctance from some doctors to speak to the media, due to perceptions within the medical profession that doctors may be misrepresented or misunderstood;

public perceptions that ‘official’ medical or scientific advice may be influenced by policy matters; and

difficulties in knowing where to obtain independent quality-assured medical information.

The Behind the Medical Headlines website makes use of the Colleges’ collective membership of 22,000 consultant physicians and surgeons around the world to commission articles from leading medical experts and has already been welcomed by a number of key figures for its innovative approach to improving understanding about medical areas, including Claire Rayner, President of the Patient’s Association; Dr Hilary Jones, GP and medical TV presenter, ‘GMTV’, ITV; and Dr Mac Armstrong, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland (and former Secretary of the British Medical Association (BMA)).

The Behind the Medical Headlines website evolved from a series of articles which the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh started to commission and publish for its membership in 2002, and which was intended to keep consultants from a wide range of specialties up to date with topical developments in other medical specialties. As the series grew it became clear that the material being published could be of equal interest to a much wider audience, particularly given the confusion which can arise when scientific studies reaching contradictory conclusions are published on the same clinical area within a short period of time.

Behind the Medical Headlines has, therefore, been developed in a unique manner which we believe will simultaneously serve the information requirements of patients, carers, the public, medical students, health professionals and the media. We have intentionally decided not to ‘dumb down’ the content of these clinical articles, as this process can result in a dilution in the accuracy of the articles and also prove patronising to readers. Instead, we have sought permission from the Online Medical Dictionary (OMD), a unique online dictionary which allows users to refine their word definition requirements via an ongoing series of hyperlinks, to feature the OMD dictionary search engine access point alongside every article published on the Behind the Medical Headlines website. This will enable users to access definitions of terms with which they are not familiar and in line with their own information requirements. Additionally, each article concludes with a summary of ‘key points’ for those users simply wishing to access short summaries. By adopting such an approach we believe we have established a unique shared information resource for clinicians and non-clinicians alike.
Selection of articles for inclusion

On a daily basis our staff monitor media coverage of medical issues reported around the world – hyperlinks to a small selection of the main medical stories published each day are included in the Breaking News section. Where media reports are considered to be of major significance or appear on a recurring basis articles are commissioned from recognised medical experts. In the first instance, Behind the Medical Headlines makes use of the Colleges’ collective membership of 22,000 consultant physicians and surgeons around the world to commission these articles.
Ensuring the quality of articles

In addition to continuing to commission articles on topical areas Behind the Medical Headlines is keen to receive suggestions from users of this website for future articles. Access suggest a topic to do so.

Behind the Medical Headlines requires all contributors to complete ‘declarations of interests’ forms which are used to identify any competing interests. For example, if a contributor writing about a particular drug treatment had a competing interest, such as having received research funding or sponsorship from the manufacturer of that drug or held shares in the company manufacturing the drug, this would have to be declared so that any potential biases in the provision of information are highlighted.
What it is not

It should be stressed that the Behind the Medical Headlines website should not be seen to be a substitute for seeking medical advice from a doctor. If members of the public are concerned about their health they should always seek medical advice from an appropriately qualified health professional.

Similarly, the Behind the Medical Headlines website should not be seen as a substitute for larger evidence-based clinical reviews or guidelines. The website simply aims to offer topical professional and independent overviews of clinical areas reported in the media about which there may be public concern or confusion.

Finally, the Behind the Medical Headlines website should not be seen as a criticism of journalistic practices or the mainstream media. While some sensationalistic media reporting of medical matters does occur the Colleges, in creating the website, recognise that the constraints facing mainstream journalists (such as summarising and translating lengthy and complex scientific studies for public consumption in short articles, to be submitted within short timescales) can lead to difficulties in communicating scientific information, including levels of risk, accurately. It is also recognised that some scientific and medical journals, produced on a commercial basis, have, from time to time, issued press releases designed to catch the attention of the mainstream media which have not always accurately reported limitations in newly published studies, leading to further confusion.

Behind the Medical Headlines is funded by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and is operated on a non-profit-making basis.