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Media and Our Health: Why Being Kind of Right Isn't Enough

Media outlets have recently come under fire for their portrayal of physical therapy. Greatist's chief research officer explains why the media is getting it wrong — and what we can all do to promote more accurate information.
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A few weeks ago, Dr. Oz featured Physical Therapist Peggy Brill on his show in a segment titled "Cutting-Edge Solutions for Back Pain." Millions tuned in to see Brill use ultrasound therapy, Tiger Balm patches, and, uhm, Bumpy Balls to treat one patient and Dr. Oz himself. Both treatment recipients were excited and praised the techniques for helping almost instantly.

The problem? None of Brill's techniques on the show are proven "solutions" to back pain, nor are they representative of what physical therapists emphasize during treatment. Dr. Oz's segment was controversial enough that the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) issued a letter in response to the producers taking issue with the shows portrayal of these techniques. "The Dr. Oz Show" is one of the nation's most popular health programs, and its segments are sure to make an impact on the products viewers buy and the treatments they seek out. The APTA's concern is understandable, since the show likely reaches and impacts many of its members' patients.

A lot of us take what we see on TV or online at face value, even when making important decisions about our health. But despite the many qualified professionals spreading good information online and on air, what's "right" isn't necessarily what gets emphasized. As our attention spans get shorter and packaging becomes the common denominator for successful content, that divide gets a little bit bigger with every passing trend.

To be fair, Brill did emphasize during the segment that these were only a few of the many modalities physical therapists use. But many in the PT community still think it misrepresented their profession. The problem extends far beyond Dr. Oz (who has a mixed record when it comes to promoting products). There is a constant danger of trading in honesty for viewers, glitz for pageviews, or the promise of great abs in days versus addressing health and fitness from a balanced, holistic perspective. In a world where the audience can make or break a company's bottom line, accuracy can unfortunately get pushed aside for flash.

It's a tough balance, and one that Greatist is very aware of. We always strive for accuracy above all else, even if we can sometimes do better. One recent story, titled "The 8 Best Physical Therapy Methods Explained," received some criticism from practicing PTs right alongside the Dr. Oz segment. The piece was approved by two Greatist Experts, and it was factually accurate. But while I like to think we did a good job expressing the range of techniques therapists use — along with a disclaimer emphasizing the importance of looking at each case individually — using a term like "best" can get tricky. On one hand, people want to trust superlatives, and using them in a title communicates that the story is giving readers all the information they need about a topic. In this case, though, the methods highlighted likely weren't the only eight useful to each and every reader; we used what we thought were the best, but in complex fields like physical therapy, there's often a plurality that's difficult to distill.

Now we're working to give individuals in the PT community a platform to respond to recent coverage of their profession — including ours. There's a killer group of Greatist Experts and APTA members working on a response post to give readers a straight-from-the-source portrayal of the work they perform everyday. For all the accomplishments I know our team is proud of, providing a platform for a variety of opinions and takes on today's important health topics is one of the hardest to accomplish — and one very near and dear to our hearts.

The health and fitness space has a long way to go, especially when it comes to spreading useful information online. Balancing accuracy with clickability is a tough challenge, but we think it's all a moot point unless the content itself is correct, actionable, and compelling for readers. By holding outlets, experts, and writers accountable, we can all pitch in to increase the quality of what's already out there. That's the only way we can ensure the quality of what's yet to come.

Photo: guillaumelemoine

Do you think the media is doing a good job of sharing health information? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @d_tao.

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