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Patricia Thomas

Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism
University of Georgia
Athens, GA
Personal Website


Patricia Thomas is expanding multimedia publishing opportunities for graduate students, training working journalists for the digital age, and conducting research that helps channel the flow of health news and information to medically underserved communities in America’s south.


Patricia Thomas has written about medicine, public health and life science research for more than 30 years. She has held the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism since 2005.

Grant Background

As a result of the teaching and research by the Knight chair, the University of Georgia will become a national resource for health and medical journalism. The chair will share innovative teaching, lead the field in commentary and, with funding provided by the university, establish a master’s degree in health and medical journalism. Using case studies, the chair will help improve the flow of public health news in the impoverished area called the Southern Black Belt. (2004)


"HMJ & The Knight Foundation"

Recent Activities

 A nine-part series produced by UGA health and medical journalism students is helping expand access to health care for Athens-area residents who fall between the cracks of the Affordable Care Act. In May, Knight Chair Patricia Thomas wrote about the project here.

Important developments have occurred since the blog appeared. Georgia Health News, the nonprofit news organization that originally published the series, became a content provider for the Athens Banner-Herald and The paper’s managing editor, eager to reach people who need this safety net program – and those in a position to make it happen – ran the entire series during the last week of July. In the print edition, seven stories ran on page one and two led the health and business pages. Online they ran as multimedia packages, drawing questions about how to sign up and attracting surprisingly few “Repeal Obamacare” comments.

But here’s what really matters: the program’s organizers were contacted by18 potential health care providers (including primary care and specialized physicians, pharmacies, laboratories and durable equipment suppliers), by 4 people who volunteered to help set up or run the network, and by 4 uninsured people who want to become members. Organizers are using the students’ work to explain the new program to professionals and citizens alike, and remain optimistic that they will begin enrolling participants in early 2014.

Graduate Newsroom is a course that Thomas created for the health and medical journalism M.A. curriculum: it is a prerequisite for HMJ courses and also available to any new Grady College graduate student with no previous journalism training or experience. Students learn journalism ethics and practice and gain hands-on experience with multimedia storytelling and web basics.

Last fall, Thomas heeded Knight Chair Charlotte Grimes’ call to join the Democracy in Action project for Election Day 2012. Thomas acquired, enlisted the help of local officials and political journalists, gave students precincts to cover and turned them loose to report five campaign and election-related stories and multimedia packages over seven weeks. On Election Day, students worked from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and filed at least two stories each. The enthusiasm of the students was unprecedented: they were intensely engaged with covering local concerns and thrilled to be part of a national effort along with 10 other journalism schools. Their perceptions of journalism and the democratic process were truly changed.

All told, 10 students generated 50 stories, 26 short videos and 11 audio-slide shows. Nineteen of these were published by local news organizations. Being part of Democracy in Action was an outstanding opportunity for teaching and learning. As a result of this experience, Thomas has renewed the domain name and is eagerly anticipating the midterm elections in 2014.

It’s no secret that scientists often have difficulty communicating their research to general audiences in clear and compelling ways. Helping them accomplish this is part of the UGA Knight Chair mission and Thomas has done many workshops – on the UGA campus, at other universities and at national conferences  – for researchers, clinicians and public health professionals.

Since 2012, however, she has been part of a campus-wide initiative aimed at integrating communication skills into graduate education and professional development across campus. During the past year she has led half a dozen workshops for doctoral candidates, post-docs and faculty in disciplines ranging from environmental science to public health.

Now she is part of the teaching team for GRSC 8200, Research Communication, a new short-course available to doctoral candidates in any discipline. She teaches a unit on communicating effectively with media and the public and leads a small-group learning session called “distilling your message.”

She also judges “Three-minute Thesis” competitions and is a co-investigator on a large NIH proposal for building communication skills into doctoral programs at UGA. The proposal narrowly missed the cut-off this fall and will be resubmitted.

Question-and-Answer with Knight Chair

 Name one experiment or idea (a tool, an approach, a book) in journalism, journalism education or media innovation that is “out there” -- pushing the frontier. Why do you think that project is interesting? Add detail if you plan to incorporate it in your teaching.

During last February’s meeting of the Knight Chairs in Miami, I learned about the new computational journalism course being created expressly for graduate students at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. I reached out to Mark Hansen, who generously shared his syllabus and began exchanging emails with me. My acquaintance with Mark, coupled with advice from Knight Chair and data journalism guru Steve Doig, motivated me to launch a similar course for Grady College graduate students. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to identify an appropriate instructor in UGA’s computer science department and a teaching assistant. Seed money from the Knight Chair budget, leveraged with support from other sources within the university, has made it possible to develop the course and offer it to graduate students in spring 2014. We will assess student demand, collect evaluation data, track job offers following graduation and apply what we learn to expanding and institutionalizing the course as appropriate. This pilot effort marks the first collaboration between Grady College and UGA’s computer science department. I will also help teach the course and I’m eager to get started.

We define the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education as a system of learning by doing where students, scholars and professionals fully engage with the community they are serving by using innovative tools, techniques and informed research. Do you agree with that definition? If so, how should journalism schools seek to add community engagement and experimentation to the kind of journalism they now produce ?

As I wrote in my guest post for the Knight Foundation blog, the relationship between Grady’s health and medical journalism program and operates more as a clinic than as a teaching hospital. See

One constraint on implementing a true teaching hospital approach has been the need for Andy Miller, CEO and editor of Georgia Health News, to run a daily operation in Atlanta while the UGA team is based in Athens. Still, the model has been extremely fruitful: over the past two years, GHN has published 47 print stories and 22 videos reported and produced with guidance and editing from Miller and me.

When we began working together, GHN was a start-up with a few hundred followers and a reciprocal content agreement with Kaiser Health News, which since the beginning has picked up stories that originate with GHN. Now the site has 20,000 monthly visitors and several thousand e-mail subscribers. Miller has expanded GHN’s reach to Athens, Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville, FL though a content provider agreement with Morris Newspapers. The Atlanta Business Chronicle, Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta and WUGA-TV and radio in Athens also regularly run GHN stories. GHN has become the go-to place for health coverage in Georgia.

For the past two years, a pair of grants from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation has underwritten this “teaching clinic” model for journalism education. The flow of news and information about health care has been accelerated during a time of unprecedented change and great uncertainty among policy makers and consumers alike. This funding has run its course, and now the challenge is to support continued experimentation and innovation.

Our “clinical training” will take a new direction in spring semester 2014, when the experimental computational journalism course gets underway. GHN’s Andy Miller will provide some investigative reporting ideas that students can pursue as coursework. Instead of using cookbook examples to clean and manipulate datasets and visualize data, they will be reporting real stories about issues that matter to Georgians

Opportunities for experimentation, research and community engagement should also expand as several newly hired Grady faculty members set up labs involving gaming, virtual reality, eye-tracking studies and risk communication. 

Building new partnerships between academia and industry is also a top priority for new Grady College Dean Charles Davis. Already his plans include creating one-semester or year-long residencies for innovative professionals from digital, print and broadcast media, as well as more digital learning opportunities for journalism students.

Recently Published

"Athelect12 -- Democracy in Action":