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Tiptoeing away
  1. Susan Quilliam
  1. Writer, Broadcaster, Consultant and Trainer, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Ms Susan Quilliam; susan{at};

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Twelve years. Forty-nine articles, including this one. And here we are at the end. The Consumer Correspondent column is taking its final bow.

It was in late summer 2003 that the Journal's former Editor-in-Chief, the late Anne Szarewski, first suggested I should write a column for the Journal which, in her words, “bridged the divide between patient and professional”. I reacted as any competent lay writer would when asked to contribute to a highly esteemed medical academic journal – with total panic. Could I be medical enough? Could I be academic enough? Anne brushed aside my objections, telling me to leave all that to the other, clinically trained contributors. My job was to cast a deliberately unqualified eye on any issue that could help health professional readers understand how the patients themselves thought and, more importantly, felt.

The beginning

My first column1 was something of a baptism of fire. The Million Women Study had just been published and the ensuing mass dismay over the effect of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on breast cancer susceptibility was making headlines. Anne tasked me to review the press coverage that was informing consumer opinion – and, by implication, consumer take-up of HRT – and to assess whether it was balanced or not.

The answer was ‘not’. I perused a total of 34 national print press items – news, features, case studies and personal opinion pieces – ranging from five extended features in The Times to a 12-line bottom-of-the-page snippet in The Sun. Yes, the factual coverage was largely accurate; it was the emotional subtexts that worried me. A quarter of these pieces included no reassuring coverage to allay fears; those that did usually included such reassurance at the end of the item, overshadowed completely by the scaremongering headlines reading “Doubles the risk”, “Devastating toll” …

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