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Straddling medicine and journalism, a former resident keeps an eye on the science press

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn


Ivan Oransky, M.D., HS ’99, isn’t shy about ruffling feathers, and he wants the medical community to share his concerns about the ways in which medical and scientific news reaches scientists and the public. Oransky is the co-creator of the science publishing watchdog site Retraction Watch, and in 2013 he became the global editorial director for MedPage Today, an online news service for physicians. After 15 years as a full-time medical journalist, Oransky uses his role at MedPage Today to communicate his passion about the importance of skepticism in both reporting and medicine.

Oransky developed an interest in the orchestrated dissemination of medical and scientific news while a reporter and executive editor of the Harvard Crimson. Embargoes, he came to believe, restrict critique and force science journalists into a herd mentality of following journal publication schedules. He’s also concerned about the Ingelfinger Rule, which not only bars scientists from publishing the same original findings in more than one outlet but also scares some of them out of talking to the press. Though the rule is well intentioned, Oransky feels it constricts the free flow of scientific information.

“Thinking about how journals and the media control the flow of information is important to everyone, including taxpayers, patients being treated, and the people doing the research and treatment,” he mused. “Any practicing doctors should understand how the sausage is made, why they read only certain studies in certain journals or in the news, and how their release is timed.”

Oransky’s move from medicine to journalism came a year after he graduated from medical school at New York University in 1998. He came to Yale for a psychiatry internship, drawn by a tradition that bridged psychoanalytic practice and modern psychopharmacology. Splitting his internship between Yale-New Haven Hospital and the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven, Oransky also found time to write. He contributed op-eds to USA Today and had a regular column in the Jewish newspaper The Forward (as “The Doctor”) where, for example, he wrote about the use of foreskin tissue in research. But it was his monthly column about life as an intern in American Medical News (which ceased publication last year) that really got people’s attention—and not in an entirely good way.

“Residents and interns worked a lot of hours, and I wrote honestly about what it was like to be an intern,” said Oransky. “One of the deans wasn’t crazy about that.” Oransky was chastised in a letter that circulated to senior medical school faculty. Oransky has no regrets. “It reminded me that my core identity is as a journalist, constantly challenging things,” he said.

After his internship, Oransky chose journalism over the practice of medicine. “It wasn’t the easiest for my parents to get used to, but once they saw that I was really happy and accomplishing things and adding value to the world, they got it,” he recalled. He was hired as founding editor in chief of Praxis Post, a webzine that was dubbed “Vanity Fair for doctors.” Following that, he was deputy editor of The Scientist and managing editor of Scientific American.

In 2010 Oransky started two blogs to keep tabs on the science communication ecosystem: Retraction Watch, which analyzes research corrections and retractions and which he runs with Anesthesiology News editor Adam Marcus; and Embargo Watch, a site that monitors premature news breaks and the effects embargoes have on news coverage. After four years as executive editor of Reuters Health, Oransky joined MedPage Today in July 2013.

Another goal of Oransky’s is to create a health care provider blog network at MedPage Today. “This is clearly the next step in the great and rapid evolution of the site,” he said. “We want to give doctors, nurses, and physician assistants a voice and a platform to have conversations and share expertise and insights.” Oransky will be tapping established bloggers, but said he is happy to hear from alumni of the School of Medicine in the health care community who would be interested in having their blogs join the MedPage network.

Blogs are powerful and lower the publishing barrier, said Oransky, and they are a great way for patients and doctors to talk to one another. While the line between traditional journalism and blogging is blurring, a common thread that he carries through his day job and his blogging is skepticism. “Knowledge is gained by challenging what we think is true and looking at the evidence,” said Oransky. Medical education, like journalism, he said, could always use more critical thinking and challenges to convention.

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