Johns Hopkins Hosts National Health Journalism Conference

Published in Dome - Dome May/June 2019

Baltimore is improving the health of its poorest residents by following the example of community health care workers in Africa and Asia, according to Chidinma Ibe of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity.

Speaking at an annual conference for health journalists, the assistant professor of medicine said that a model used to provide care in remote communities of developing countries is also helping people in Baltimore take better care of themselves and reduce emergency department visits.

“The health workers are from the communities they are serving, which means they are often navigating the issues they are helping people overcome,” Ibe explained as part of the panel discussion “Global Health in America: Local Health Programs Modeled on African and Asian Influences.”

Ibe was one of 33 Johns Hopkins faculty members to participate in the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, held May 3–5, 2019, at the Hilton Baltimore hotel.

About 800 journalists from across the country attended the event, which was hosted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The nonprofit Association of Health Care Journalists seeks to improve the quality, accuracy and visibility of health care reporting, writing and editing. During its annual conference, health journalists network, pitch story ideas, and hear new information and perspectives from medical experts.

This year’s event featured 60 panel discussions on topics including health disparities for minority women, the impact of climate change on public health and the importance of clinical trial enrollments that reflect the nation’s diversity.

One goal of the conference was to help journalists tell nuanced stories about complex and often misunderstood medical innovations. Consumer genetic test kits, for example, are getting more popular each year, but the general public doesn’t always understand their limitations, said Natalie Beck, senior genetic counselor for the Johns Hopkins Institute of Genetic Medicine.

The tests can identify variants that increase risks for diseases such as breast cancer, she said, but they analyze only a fraction of genetic information and don’t take into account a person’s lifestyle and other factors that influence health.

“What worries us is people who think the results show they are not at high risk for a particular disease and don’t pursue proper diagnostic tests,” she said. “The flip side is that people get false information and maybe make drastic decisions like getting mastectomies because they believe they have a high risk of getting breast cancer.

Journalists also sought advice about how to tell stories about addiction, violence and poverty without perpetuating stereotypes. During a Q&A session after a discussion about the lasting effects of childhood exposure to violence, journalists asked how to write about shootings while being sensitive to readers who might live nearby or know the victims.

“You can find and tell stories of positive examples of things that are working, stories of people who have broken the cycle,” said Philip Leaf, a Johns Hopkins mental health professor with appointments in the schools of medicine and public health. “Developing some of those relationships beforehand is helpful. Ask us if we know people in the community who can tell their stories.” 

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