Look for the facts behind the headline cure


MEDICAL MATTERS:Smelling a rat when reading of breakthroughs

ALL OF us like to think we are good at what we do. Equally most of us could probably do better by focusing a little harder. It was in this spirit that European health journalists met last week in Athens to discuss ways of improving the quality of health reporting across the EU.

At a time when news media are experiencing falling revenues and are looking to reduce staff numbers, it is often the specialist reporters who are let go first.

From a management perspective, a good general reporter offers greater flexibility. But the change comes at a price: research shows that more experienced specialist health journalists write stories of a higher quality than journalists in other categories.

Assessment criteria used by researchers included whether journalists reported on evidence supporting the treatment or intervention and whether they quantified the harms and benefits of the health intervention. Points were also given if the writer avoided “disease-mongering” and consulted independent experts.

However, some recently published research raises some concerns. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers found that the media was not fulfilling its “crucial” role of accurately reporting on screening and diagnostic tests.

They identified 1,581 medical news stories reported between June 2004 and February 2011, of which 113 reported on screening tests and 72 on diagnostic tests.

“Most stories addressed the novelty of the test and avoided disease mongering. Fifty-seven per cent of stories covered diagnostic options, but only 36 per cent discussed the evidence behind the test’s claims, and 24 per cent quantified diagnostic accuracy”, the researchers wrote.

“Potential harms of testing were covered in only 29 per cent, and 26 per cent mentioned costs. A minority of stories included independent expert comment to interpret the claims and provide context for the reader.”

In a paper presented in Athens, Wiebke Rogener-

Schwarz of the Institute of Journalism at the University of Dortmund listed the criteria used by the website medien-doktor.deto assess the quality of health reporting. It aims to draw more attention to positive examples of good health journalism.

“Good medical journalism is coherently written and draws relevant connections; it is vital and exciting but does not generate unfounded hope, let alone fear,” she said.

US journalist Gary Schwitzer runs a website called HealthNewsReview.orgwhich reviews health stories for accuracy. In 2008 in a review of some 500 articles, he found that two-thirds of them failed to quantify the harms or the benefits of treatments. Seven in 10 stories failed to adequately discuss the costs associated with the treatments highlighted in the articles.

In my experience, some of the worst reporting involves early scientific breakthroughs in research on rodents. They should carry either a “mouse-trap” warning or a “smell-a-rat” label so often do they induce the breathless reporting of “cures”.

The fact that the research involved rodents and not humans is omitted in the worst examples.

The reasons for poor quality journalism are many and include time pressures, space limitations and the desire of some researchers or their institutions to exaggerate the significance of a piece of research.

Meanwhile back in Athens the need to get specific modules on health reporting training included in basic journalism courses was highlighted by Dr John Lister of Coventry University. And Dina Zota and Afroditi Veloudaki of the Prolepsis Institute in Athens outlined the considerable progress made in defining a health journalism curriculum as part of the EU-funded HeaRT (Health Reporter Training) project. Workshops have been held in Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Romania, Spain and the UK and an e-learning tool is also available.

Readers may wish to improve their own health literacy by keeping the following checklist in mind when reading stories about medical breakthroughs, including those written by this scribe:

* Was the research carried out on humans?

* What was the sample size?

* Are side effects discussed?

* Is there a reference to cost?

* Is it published in a reputable journal or website?

* Is there a quote from an expert not involved in the research?