Feature BMJ Group Awards

Health Communicator of the Year: Health communicators have the extra factor

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1824 (Published 25 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1824
  1. Trevor Jackson, magazine editor
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. tjackson{at}bmj.com

What makes a successful health communicator in the digital age? Where once a poster or a pamphlet would have sufficed, today’s would be health communicators need an X factor Simon Cowell would be proud of. It is not enough to want to change the way people think about important issues; you also have to be able to use imaginative and effective methods of communication to do so. That means standing out from the crowd and being noticed, in addition to demonstrating balance, accuracy, and an evidence base.

All three of the shortlisted entries for this year’s BMJ Group health communicator of the year award have that something extra. Selected from a total of 15 strong entries, the shortlist includes one doctor, one broadcaster, and one film maker.

Ann McPherson

Ann McPherson is a general practitioner who in 2001 cofounded DIPEx (database of individual patient experiences), a web based resource in which patients describe their experiences of health and illness. Ten years on, and renamed HealthTalkOnline, the site has sections on 60 illnesses or health related issues. Each month it receives two million hits and attracts 80 000 unique users.

Ann was inspired to set up the site after having breast cancer diagnosed. It aims to enable patients, families, and healthcare professionals to benefit from the experiences of others. Eager for the website to be authoritative and reliable, Ann was careful to ensure that the DIPEx project used systematic qualitative research to gather the experiences of patients from different backgrounds. She says that the site is “intended to overcome the inadequacies of other resources for health information on the internet by using the same degree of rigour in the collection and analysis of the narrative interviews as is expected of evidence based medicine.”

Over the past year Ann has appeared in the media arguing in favour of the principle of assisted dying. She is also the author or coauthor of 30 health related books, one of which, The Diary of a Teenage Health Freak (see BMJ 2009;339:b3355), has sold a million copies, been translated into 27 languages, and been made into a six part television series.

Fergus Walsh

As the BBC’s medical correspondent, Fergus Walsh covers a huge range of stories on television, radio, and online. In June 2010 he became the first person to have all his genes sequenced by the NHS, and his subsequent report showed his skill in making complex science accessible to a lay audience. Fergus used this report as an opportunity to relaunch his blog from the previous year, “Fergus on Flu,” renaming it “Fergus’s Medical Files,” and giving it a wider remit. In the new blog Fergus has analysed some Lancet research on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, talked about the risks and benefits of low dose daily aspirin, and reported on the re-emergence of A/H1N1 flu.

When before Christmas 2010 the National Blood Service put out an appeal for O negative donors to give blood (which received almost no coverage elsewhere in the media), Fergus did not simply cover the story, he gave blood on camera (he is O negative). In early January he received an email from the deputy director of blood donation to say: “In the days after your broadcast we had record numbers of O negative donors turning up at our sessions across the country. Despite the worst that the British weather could throw at us . . . we have managed to sustain supplies safely to patients across all of the hospitals that we serve.”

Tom Gibb

Tom Gibb is a journalist and film maker whose documentary A Trial For Life tells the story of the Developing Antiretroviral Therapy in Africa (DART) trial, the largest and longest running trial of treatment for HIV/AIDS conducted in Africa. Tom’s film, which is aimed at an African audience and has been widely distributed in Africa, shows why it has been so difficult to get medicines to all who need them in Africa and why DART is so relevant. It also explains how a clinical trial works and what it is like to take part in one—which is why it is narrated by one of the trial participants.

DART followed 3300 participants in Uganda and Zimbabwe and found that many of the expensive routine laboratory blood tests done to monitor antiretroviral therapy in wealthy countries have little or no benefit for patients.

Tom made different versions of the film, including one before the end of the trial that was broadcast on Uganda’s main television channels, helping to fulfil an obligation for researchers to inform the communities involved. Another version acted as a tool for briefing policy makers and activists on the trial outcome.

The film relied on close consultation with the scientists and doctors in London, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The script was widely circulated to make sure that health messages were accurate, which allowed direct input by doctors, scientists, and trial participants, something that is not possible in most documentaries. It was thus able to break down barriers that sometimes prevent good reporting of medical research.

The judges for this award are Vikki Entwistle, professor of values in healthcare at the University of Dundee; Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee; BMJ columnist Nigel Hawkes; and last year’s winner, Sarah Boseley, health editor of the Guardian.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1824


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