Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Media watch

Beware of mentioning psychosocial factors

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 18 October 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:801
  1. Ben Goldacre, doctor and writer, London
  1. ben{at}

    How doctors describe the many interactions between a person, their illness, and society has little purchase in the crudely dualistic world of popular culture

    Although we are constantly told to “engage with the public,” many doctors and academics avoid the media like the plague. This month, like many doctors before me, I walked into a broadcast studio a man and came out an ass.

    The story was acupuncture. A major study had been published showing that acupuncture is more effective for back pain than conventional medical treatment, and as I sometimes write about complementary medicine and research methodology I was invited to discuss the study on BBC Radio 4, where nobody can tell that I look about 14.

    The very interesting paper (Archives of Internal Medicine 2007;167:1892-8) had three arms. Results from the “sham” and “real” acupuncture arms were indistinguishable—make of that what you will—but both outperformed conventional medical treatment. The patients in the study, I should mention, were people who had already been failed by conventional medical treatment for an average of eight years.

    If you're a doctor, you can probably imagine what I …

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