Health and Medical News and Resources

General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

[Reblog] Misleading BMJ news releases may be one reason journalists report on more observational studies

From the 24 January 2014 post at TheHealthNewsReview Blog  by Gary Schwitzer

[At least 16 comments on this post, click on the link above to read them]

Just a few days ago, a paper in the journal PLoS One, “Media Coverage of Medical Journals: Do the Best Articles Make the News?” showed how journalists are more likely to report on observational studies than on randomized clinical trials.  The authors suggest this shows a systematic bias to report on weaker evidence.

And here’s one reason why that may happen.

This week the BMJ sent out a news release on a paper from the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, one of the specialist journals it publishes. And I’ve been waiting for days to address it – waiting for the journal’s embargo time to pass so that I’m not violating that sacred trust.

The headline of the news release:  HRT cuts risk of repeat knee/hip replacement surgery by 40%.

 

Nope.  Sorry, BMJ news release writers.  That’s an overstatement, to be kind.  An inaccuracy, to be accurate. That’s not what the study showed, because it wasn’t equipped to show that anything “cut risk.”  Proof of cutting risk would be proof of cause and effect.  And the observational study in question can’t do that.

Don’t blame the authors of the journal article. They didn’t use cause-and-effect language.  They concluded: “HRT is associated with an almost 40% reduction.”  (My emphasis added.) That’s the way you describe the results of an observational study. That’s what we try to teach journalists and the public with a primer that’s been on our site for years. Maybe the BMJ should have its news release writers read it.

The researchers went even further, for any writer – journal news release writers included – who bothered to read the study.  The research team wrote: “The main limitation of this study is its observational nature.”

To be clear, this was a large study with long followup.  This could be a head-turner in medical circles.

But it still is what it is – a study that can only show statistical association.

And association ≠ causation.

We’ve written about this problem with BMJ news releases in the past, and will continue to do so until they get it right.  Past examples:

As I wrote in one of these posts:  Journals could help lift all ships – or they can (and sometimes do) help us all drown in a daily tsunami of global miscommunication about health news.

 

 

 

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January 28, 2014 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

[Reblog] News coverage of peanut butter Alzheimer’s test doesn’t stick

Studying Alzheimer's disease at the APS

Studying Alzheimer’s disease at the APS (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

 

From the 14 October 2013 HealthNewsReview.org item

 

CBS News online actually asked whether a scoop of peanut butter and a ruler could become the “elusive”…”single..definitive test” that could determine whether a person has Alzheimer’s disease.

I was away when this was published, but Ivan Oransky was all over it on MedPageToday.com.  Excerpts of his analysis:

Reading CBS News’s headline, “Cheap Alzheimer’s Test Made From Peanut Butter and Ruler, Researchers Report,” reminded me of the old adage “Fast, good, or cheap: Pick two.”

A couple things made me wonder just how much of an advance this was:

  • The study was small, fewer than 100 people all together, divided into four groups ranging from probable Alzheimer’s to healthy controls.
  • The journal — which is not exactly a core clinical title — is ranked in the bottom third of neuroscience journals by Thomson Scientific’s impact factor, 162 out of 252. Wouldn’t the researchers have tried for a more prestigious, and clinical, journal first?

So we asked a range of Alzheimer’s researchers what they thought. Here’s a sampling:

Richard Caselli, MD, of the Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale: “I don’t think anyone will feel comfortable diagnosing AD on the basis of a smell test.”

Samuel Gandy, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine: “Smell tests for dementia screening have been proposed for years, but the lack of specificity has repeatedly undone the early claims. Ditto for eye tests. This might be the exception, but I would urge caution pending independent replication on larger numbers and diversities of subjects.”

George Bartzokis, MD, UCLA: “Do not dismiss the study. What is new here is simply what they used to test it out — peanut butter. The principal problem with smell tests is that they are nonspecific and therefore only one small piece of the diagnostic puzzle. Not only can you have some congestion in your nasal cavities that can reduce your smell on a temporary basis but a past head trauma, severe past sinus infections, etc. can do so on a permanent basis. Individuals may not even remember these past events or be aware of current sinus problems that could interfere with their ability to smell.”

I wouldn’t suggest that anyone dismiss the study. But I would suggest that they dismiss much of the news coverage of the study.  Sampling of other headlines:

But the NPR Shots blog headlined it,  Why A Peanut Butter Test For Alzheimer’s Might Be Too Simple.

 

 

 

 

October 22, 2013 Posted by | Medical and Health Research News | , , , , | Leave a comment

The State of Health Journalism in the U.S., March 2009 (old but still true)

“When I started, we had a stand-alone science/health section
and several people covering various aspects of the beat—health
policy/insurance, consumer health, and biosciences. Now
there’s only one person left with any medical journalism
training and that person is covering higher education.”

–15-year newspaper reporter laid off in 2008

 

“The pressure to produce from my editor blunts your ambition
because you know if you have a choice of a story you can turn
around in a week as opposed to one that may take 2- 3 times
as long, you have to juggle. You make choices based on the
stories you choose not to pursue. And that’s where readers
come out losers. That’s particularly true on health policy
and insurance. How ambitious am I going to be on this
story? Do I feel encouraged to do this kind of reporting
or” not? Those are dilemmas I face regularly.

–Major-market newspaper reporter

 

From the summary

This report provides a snapshot of the current state of health journalism in the U.S. today. It is based on a literature review of more than 100 published pieces of research on health journalism; on a survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), conducted by the Foundation and AHCJ; and on informal one-on-one interviews conducted by the author of this report with more than 50 journalists who work (or worked) for newspapers, radio and TV stations, magazines, and Web sites in small and large markets.

Excerpts from the report

The cuts in budget and personnel that so many newsrooms are facing contribute to several troubling trends in the content of health journalism:

  •  An emphasis on stories that can be produced quickly—often meaning more stories on medical studies, and sometimes sacrificing on quality.
  •  Fewer in-depth or complex stories, especially about health policy, and more “hyper-local” stories along with stories variously described as lifestyle, consumer, or news-you-can-use.
  • Reliance on stories produced and syndicated elsewhere, by non-traditional news sources.
  • The influence of commercial interests on health news, through video news releases (VNRs), sponsored news segments, free syndicated news segments from health providers, and the influence of PR firms steering the news.

    [Janice’s note…I am thinking of local hospitals who provide articles and interviews on the latest (expensive) procedures to the local media. Yes, hospitals are commercial interests. Seldom do these articles or interviews go into details about evidence, cost, or appropriateness.]

……….

There is an undeniably widespread trend in TV news—often in health news—to label
as news some content which has been provided by industry sources who covet publicity in news programming. This practice takes several forms:

  • Video news releases (VNRs) – produced and distributed by those promoting a product or cause. They are produced to look exactly like high-quality TV news packages. They are usually supplied on videotape or via satellite feed along with a script so that stations can put their own reporter’s face and voice on the story.
  • Sponsored health news – usually paid for by a local medical center and featuring professionals from that medical center. The fact that these segments are paid for, and that they include only certain perspectives, is usually not disclosed.
  • Free news segments from health providers – produced by medical centers, featuring only professionals from that organization.

“My biggest challenge? …Trying to figure who’s paying for what
pitch, who’s paying for what health campaign. There’s dollars
attached to everything.”

–Veteran reporter

 

What’s a reader to do? Start by reading articles thoughtfully. Look for clues for completeness, strength of evidence, conflicts of interest, and authorship.

A few good resources on how to analyze medical and health news stories.

 

January 2, 2013 Posted by | Health Education (General Public) | , , , | Leave a comment

   

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