NPR Responds Positively to Advocacy on Coverage of Gates’ Negative Comment About IBS

The expected release earlier this week of a new memoir by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates elicited widespread coverage in the national print and broadcast media. These articles and interviews have often highlighted an unfortunately less than complimentary passage from the book about irritable bowel syndrome. According to various news sources, Gates wrote about a request from Senator Harry Reid that the Department of Defense fund IBS research, “With two ongoing wars and all our budget and other issues, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

On January 12, the IBS Impact founder first heard this anecdote recounted on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered, Weekend Edition.” NPR’s initial report (Scroll down to segment 3 on the linked page for archived audio) described Gates’ comment as one example of several “parochial interests” that legislators were bringing to then-Secretary Gates. Although the reference to IBS was brief and not the focus of the broadcast segment, and NPR cannot be faulted for reporting Gates’ opinion per se, it appeared from the tone of the report that IBS was indeed a trivial and irrelevant subject unworthy of the then-Secretary of Defense’s attention. Given that those who served in the two wars it was former Secretary Gates’ responsibility at the time to oversee, are disproportionately affected by functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS, this seemed to be an inaccurate implication to convey to listeners.

On January 13,  the IBS Impact founder, writing as an individual, submitted a polite comment to “All Things Considered,” including a reputable link to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD)’s work on veterans’ issues and stating in part:

As Secretary Gates’ memoir is not yet released, I can’t comment on the context of his conversation with Senator Reid about irritable bowel syndrome as you reported. However, as a person with IBS, advocate and educator in contact with leading professionals in the field, I can say that IBS is not a “parochial interest” irrelevant to the military. IBS is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder, affecting 10-20% of the general public, many moderately or severely. Peer-reviewed academic research shows that Gulf-era veterans are affected at even higher rates. As of 2011, IBS has been considered presumptively (automatically) service connected for the purposes of VA disability benefits, and IBS currently does receive Department of Defense research funding that must be reauthorized each year.

After alerting IFFGD to the situation, the next day, the IBS Impact founder also sent brief tweets stating some of these facts to the Twitter accounts of “All Things Considered,” the host, and the reporter, not knowing what, if anything, to expect. To NPR’s credit and her own, politics reporter Liz Halloran responded promptly that a followup story focusing on veterans and IBS was scheduled  for January 16. That article, “Doctors Say Reid Request for Bowel Research Money Is No Joke,” has received largely positive comments from online readers.

Douglas Drossman, MD, FACG, founder and co-director emeritus of the University of North Carolina Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders,  founder and president of the Rome Foundation, and board member of IFFGD, who is quoted extensively in the NPR followup, also posted a fuller response on his Drossman Center website entitled, “IBS Is No Joking Matter for Veterans and Others With This Condition.” Both articles have since been circulating on social media, attracting the attention of others in the IBS community as well as educating the general public about IBS and about its impact on military veterans and service members in particular. (See our August 12, 2011 post for information on functional GI disorders and service connected disability and the November 11, 2013 post for a general overview of current veterans’ issues and resources.)

The events described here are a heartening example of how sometimes even simple communications that take just a few minutes of time can unexpectedly yield results. IBS Impact thanks Liz Halloran and NPR for their positive response, despite the fact that health issues are not Ms. Halloran’s usual beat. For a previous post on how to advocate for IBS in the media, see the November 6, 2011 post.

IBS Impact also recognizes Dr. Drossman and IFFGD for their continued leadership in representing reputable scientific knowledge about IBS and the needs of the functional GI community. It is hoped that the advocacy action described in this post and NPR’s response have a ripple effect with other people with IBS and other media sources as former Secretary Gates’ book enters circulation.

Besides educating the general public, accurate, useful coverage of IBS may also prompt those who struggle, veterans and civilians alike, to reach out to the resources that are available to us, which are not always well known or easy to find. All of these are potentially very positive outcomes from what began with as a negative comment on the part of Secretary Gates.

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