CJP: What first inspired you to pursue public health as a beat?
Picard: I first got involved in student newspapers in the early 1980s, and that was the beginning of the AIDS era. As a result, for me, health/medicine always had an important social and political component. At The Globe, like every other media outlet, we covered medicine in a very traditional manner, principally from the point-of-view of physicians and researchers. We generally ignored the whole public health movement, though the movement brought about the greatest improvements in health by promoting clean drinking water, sanitation, vaccination and so on. Activists — largely gay men with HIV-AIDS (and, in parallel, women with breast cancer) — forced us to broaden our outlook. They were also natural allies of the public health movement as they pushed prevention, health prevention and the importance of social factors in the spread of disease. We finally formalized public health as a beat in the mid-1990s.
CJP: In deciding what topic to discuss in your column, what criteria do you measure against?
Picard: I try to take popular or timely issues and look at them through a public health prism. If there is a new “miracle”’ drug garnering a lot of media coverage, I ask: Is it really a miracle? What does the research, and the statistics in the research, really say? How does that compare to alternatives? I also try to tackle topics that don’t get enough attention, like the impact of social and economic factors (housing, income, etc.) on health. The most effective drug we have is money, and we don’t use it very wisely to keep our population healthy.
CJP: In your opinion, what health issue is most deserving of coverage that it doesn’t get?
Picard: There are two. The first I already mentioned: The socio-economic determinants of health. We pay a lot of attention to the impact of genetics and lifestyle factors on health. But our environment – physical, social, political, economic – has as much, if not more impact on our health, and we tend to dismiss that reality. The second is mental health. We have made a lot of progress in recent years, particularly in mainstream media coverage, but we are not yet at the point where we treat mental illness in the same way as physical illness. If we treated people with cancer or heart disease the way we treat people with depression and schizophrenia, the public would be appalled. They should be appalled and angered by the way we treat patients with mental illness.
André Picard will moderate the Canadian Journalism Foundation panel discussion, “Reporting Medical Errors,” on October 3 in Toronto.