Analyzing Trump’s illness is humbling for media’s med teams

NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s an assignment to humble even the most confident doctor: Assess a patient’s condition before millions of people without being able to examine him or see a complete medical chart.

That, in effect, is what medical experts at news organizations have been asked to do since President Donald Trump revealed Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

They have a fine line to walk, needing to decide what level of speculation — if any — that they’re comfortable with, how much to read into medications the president has been prescribed and how to explain the course of a virus so new that it still confounds the people who study it.

“You try to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” said CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who logged hours comparable to his residency days in the wake of Trump’s announcement.

A second or third opinion is only a click away. The question of whether Trump developed COVID 19-related pneumonia is one example of how media experts have differed despite access to the same information.

All would like to see images of Trump’s lungs, but they haven’t been made available. Dr. Vin Gupta (no relation to Sanjay), a pulmonologist who treats coronavirus patients and reports for NBC News, is confident that Trump has pneumonia because the president has had shortness of breath, low oxygen levels in his blood and has COVID-19.

CBS News’ Dr. John LaPook is less definitive, but believes that’s the case “because if he had a chest x-ray and it was normal, they would be shouting it from the rooftops.”

But Dr. Jen Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent, said that would be “quintessential speculation” because the president’s medical team hasn’t made that diagnosis publicly. His doctors said there were some pulmonary findings on imaging tests, but there are other things that could mean besides pneumonia.

“We don’t know what the findings were, and that is precisely why I didn’t jump to conclusions,” Ashton said.

For Vin Gupta, however, “this is my wheelhouse.

“What might be speculative for another journalist, for me there’s a level of concreteness that I feel exists that I try to pass along,” he said.

Ashton also objects to how some in the media have pinned percentages on Trump’s likely survival. Dr. Martin Makary said on Fox News Channel that Trump had a 99.4 percent chance of surviving COVID-19; CNN’s Gupta said it’s “90 to 95 percent” that he’ll get through.

“This has been very, very challenging,” Ashton said. “The way that I’ve handled this is that I do not speculate. And one of my pet peeves in this story, as it is in all medical media, is when everyone with an ‘MD’ after their name thinks that they can offer inside baseball.”

Imagine the confusion visitors to newsstands in Massachusetts might have felt on Monday. “Trump is improving, doctors say,” was the banner headline on the Wall Street Journal. “Fresh concerns on Trump’s health,” headlined the Boston Globe.