Death reporting: Time to wade into medical matters in cases like Jade Goody's?

In the last few years reporters have started to mention whether those involved in car crashes were wearing seatbelts or drinking. Editors have decided the information is relevant and could have an impact on policy and personal behavior. Of course there’s also the ticklish element of laying blame on a dead person. It might be time for the mainstream press to start doing something similar with deaths that have something to do with the medical system.

A couple of examples in today’s Boston Globe brought this to mind.

A brief item (Teen, 16, dies in accident on I-89 in N.H.) on page B5 (not indexed by the Globe site that I can find anyway)

Anthoney Wilkerson, 16, was riding without a seatbelt in the backseat… when the SUV veered to the left and overturned… Wilkerson was pronounced dead… The driver, Michael Richardson, 48, and the front-seat passenger, Angenetta Cairo, 35…were wearing seatbelts and were uninjured…”

That’s pretty stark, but it tells the story.

Meanwhile, the Globe printed a much longer obituary from the Associated Press (Jade Goody, 27, star of British reality TV) that tells very little about her death and who’s involved, even though there is arguably more to learn from it. I first heard about this unfortunate case when I hosted Grand Rounds last month. The Blog That Ate Manhattan submitted a post entitled The Tragedy of Jane Goody:

Unlike Eva Peron, whose death from cervical cancer occurred in the years before we had access to screening, Jade did get pap smears.

Jade had more than one pap smear, starting in her teens. At one point, she was even treated for precancerous changes of the cervix. And went on to have more follow up smears after that.

But when those follow up smears showed a recurrence of abnormal cells, Jade ignored letters that were sent to her advising her to come in for follow up and treatment.

Why? Because she was scared…

And now Jane Goody is going to die.

There are a couple of points here that the newspaper could have covered. In particular:

  • Jade’s responsibility to follow up on letters she received
  • Whether Jade’s doctors or the NHS as an entity were sufficiently active in following up. For example, whether someone should have reached out by phone

The car crash and Jade’s death are quite different. After all Jade is a public figure, Anthoney isn’t. Because of medical privacy issues I don’t think there’s much chance reporters will start asking questions about cause and responsibility in medical deaths on a regular basis. Still, it might be good if they did.

March 23, 2009

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