Media perspectives: Gill Cox

Hannah Blake interviews Gill Cox

Freelance health writer

This is an interview with health expert, Gill Cox, about her work as a freelance health journalist over the past decade, as well as her experience as an agony aunt and columnist for monthly magazines. We speak with Gill about some of the most interesting and crazy stories she has reported on, as well as discussing the rise of social networking, such as Facebook, and the effects this has on the media as well as the doctor / patient relationship.

Every month we gain an insight into the lives of those working within both the media and healthcare industries through our Media Perspectives series. This month’s interview is with Gill Cox, who has over 30 years experience within women’s health. Gill’s extensive career started when she worked as a press officer at the Family Planning Association, before becoming an agony aunt and regularly appearing on TV chat shows, such as “Trisha”. For the last decade, Gill has been a freelance health journalist for a number of mainstream monthly magazines and won the Health Journalist of the Year award in 2008.

We speak with Gill to get the lowdown on some of the most remarkable stories from her reporting career, from the introduction of the contraceptive pill, to the mind-boggling MMR media frenzy, as well as how the rise in social media has affected her way of working, as both a media journalist and agony aunt.

HB: Hi Gill, thanks for speaking to me today. Would you mind telling me a bit about your background and how you got into your current role please?

GC: I actually started at the Family Planning Association in my formative years, working in their press office, and that introduced me to sexual health, and then the wider women’s health issues that are involved with contraception and fertility. From there I moved into agony columns, and I always kept an eye on health, and then when I was working in magazines, an Editor asked me to take over editing the health pages. And so I became more involved in healthcare, and then ten years ago became freelance, and have concentrated pretty much on health ever since.


“I feel that health journalists provide a useful function, we’re actually providing information to people in an easily accessible format.”


HB: What interests you the most about being a health writer?

GC: It’s a useful type of journalism. I feel that health journalists provide a useful function, we’re actually providing information to people in an easily accessible format.

HB: What have been in your opinion the bigger stories over the years for the pharma industry?

GC: In women’s health, which is what I know most about, then that has to be to do with fertility such as contraception over the decades. I’m old enough to remember the pill being introduced, for instance, which revolutionised not just contraception but women’s lives, menopause and HRT, which has had a bit of an up and down history to it, and IVF drugs. So I would say biggest stories have been those revolving around women’s health and fertility.

HB: What type of stories do you find the most interesting to report on?

GC: Generally the most interesting topics are those I’ve not written much about before. So it becomes a learning curve for me in terms of researching the subject. As a health writer there are some stories you return to time and time again, and it’s merely a matter of updating, finding a slightly different angle, and occasionally you do a story where you think, “Oh, never looked at that in-depth before”.

For instance just recently I’ve had to take an in-depth look at aspirin and all the current research on the drug. I’ve also recently written about medical devices – following on from the PIP breast implant fiasco. To find the lack of robust regulation there is about introducing medical devices was genuinely shocking, but I am pleased to know that people at the BMJ, and the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine are on the case, and are busy trying to change that.

I also have regular columns in Candis, a mid-market monthly glossy, and in Chat it’s fate, a mass market monthly. In these columns I cover health news items, new products and for Candis, also explore health / medical issues in more depth.


“I’m old enough to remember the pill being introduced, for instance, which revolutionised not just contraception but women’s lives…”


One story I wrote recently was about sleeping pills and a link with those pills hastening death of the users. With 10% of Brits suffering insomnia that was a worrying story, partly because drugs are often used as the first resort despite NICE guidance and the Royal Colleges agreeing that psychological approaches should be the first step. Actually time and time again we see that there’s too little investment by the NHS in psychological therapies in areas such as insomnia, anxiety, depression and so on, so GPs are often left with little to offer but drugs – and, paradoxically, I feel that can lead to the drugs getting a bad reputation rather than being used sensibly as part of treatment.

HB: In 2011, you collaborated with other agony aunts and charities to question the Government’s commitment to the nation’s sexual health. Why was this issue so important and why did you get involved?

GC: Sexual health tends to hit the headlines when there’s a crisis – such as HIV or debates over the country’s teenage pregnancy rate, or battles over abortion. The fpa and Brook wanted to highlight that funding for charities working in this area is vital all the time. The agony aunts, as a collective, tend to save our fire for important issues so we don’t look as if we pop up over every issue that comes our way – plus, actually, it’s quite a logistical exercise to get us all together in the same place at the same time! The other campaign we’ve been involved in over recent years is the Kids in the Middle Campaign, aiming to get more support for children / teenagers caught up in divorce.

HB: You’ve also written a report on the safety of HPV vaccines. With the figures stating there’s nearly 3000 new cases of cervical cancer every year, what does reporting on this topic mean to you?

GC: HPV is a subject close to my heart, as I’ve had my own brush with cervical dysplasia and been treated twice. While I applaud any efforts to limit the spread of HPV, when vaccinating generations of young women we do, obviously, need to be sure of the vaccine’s safety and be sure we’re using the best option available. Fortunately, it all seems to be going well.

HB: What is the craziest story you’ve ever reported on?

GC: I think the craziest story I’ve followed was the MMR one, which was just mind boggling in how it took off and how it really affected people. Women were saying to me, “Should I get my child immunised?” and you think “do you know what measles does?” Especially when you look at the study and found it was actually only on 14 children. If a PR sends me through something on a supplement and it’s only been tested on 14 people, I throw it in the bin. That one was just staggering in how it ran and ran, and is still bubbling under. So that I think counts as crazy.


“If a PR sends me through something on a supplement and it’s only been tested on 14 people, I throw it in the bin.”


HB: How has the rise in social media affected your way of working? Do you find you get more emails now than written letters?

GC: Yes, definitely more emails now, though that can be age related. Those aged 60 plus still prefer to write, and some younger folk don’t have easy access to the internet. We tend to think everyone has broadband these days, or smartphones, but in poorer groups this simply isn’t so.

HB: Do you feel you have to have a social media presence?

GC: Not as much as I should have! I’ve yet to get my own website up and running – though I am in the process of doing that. I confess I’ve been a bit of a Luddite, but am catching up with the 21st century now!

The rise in social networking does have a downside though and research is now showing that the more people are on social networks, the more isolated they actually feel. This is because we tend to show our positive side on Facebook and wherever, keeping our negative feelings about ourselves to ourselves. Just shows, you can’t actually beat a face to face chat, and I believe that’s true for doctors seeing patients as well as friends with friends. Body language is a heck of a giveaway, and you can’t get that with a keypad.

HB: Thanks Gill, it’s been great to hear your thoughts.


About the interviewee:

For over 30 years Gill Cox has been an agony aunt for a number of leading women’s magazines and TV shows, including “Trisha”. Having previously been Press Officer for the Family Planning Association (now called fpa,) it seemed a natural fit for Gill to branch out into women’s health and then into general health / medical issues.

Since going freelance a decade ago, Gill has supplied features and health / medical news to a range of women’s titles and national newspapers. She is currently health editor for the monthly magazines, Candis and Chat it’s fate and regularly writes for Bella and Woman along with some contract publications.

What advances in women’s health have interested you the most?