Public perception of science cartoon I came across a cartoon last week about "the public perception of science" thanks to science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker. See the full cartoon here. Maggie wrote that it conveyed that the public's unrealistic expectations about science matter.  This is a major theme of our project:  trying to improve news stories that raise unrealistic expectations about health care - news that may promote undue demand of unproven ideas that may, in the end, cause more harm than good.

Think about unrealistic expectations and think about the possible cumulative impact of stories like these from the past week: 
  • A story proclaiming that overactive bladder may be the "next frontier" for Botox.  It's a story that interviews the drugmaker's CEO but no medical expert. Botox doesn't need any more free advertising from journalists. That's an overactive disease that needs treatment.  
  •  A story about a new "painless" test for prostate cancer.  Unless it required catheterization, a urine test is usually painfree! This is hype. A competing story on the same study said the urine test may be better than a blood test - inaccurate, completely missing the gist of the research.  
  • A story delivering what it called an "Important health tip for the summer: Drink more wine! " as protection against harmful sunburns.  You might need a drink after reading how the story failed to evaluate the evidence.  This is the kind of daily drumbeat of meaningless health news that turns people numb to the stuff that really matters.    

As anyone who follows us regularly knows, we see and report on such stories every single week - now nearly 1,600 in 5+ years.  Throw in the impact of advertising and other conflicted, incomplete and biased messages and you see how "the worried well" of the US are whipped into a frenzy, flooded by a daily tsunami of claims about health care or medical interventions. 


We aren't doing a good enough job preparing the public to accept comparative effectiveness research - and real data about real outcomes that matter.

We need more stories like this one:


Our lone 5-star story of the week was about colon cancer screening - reminding readers that there is good evidence for what stool tests - especially the newer versions - can accomplish.  Oftentimes, colonoscopy dominates the discussion about colon cancer screening, when, in fact, there are many reasons to shine some attention on the stool test.



Finally, our most popular blog post of the week was a guest post by one of our medical editors, asking "Where is the voice of consumers in the 'Top Doctors/Best Hospitals' rankings?"

Links to all story reviews and blog posts from the week appear below.  


Story Reviews from the Past Week
New drug shows promise in fighting breast cancer
Arizona Republic
Score: 2 out of 5 stars
This story carries an almost absurd headline about "promise in fighting breast cancer" in a Phase 1 study that showed shrinkage in only one breast cancer out of 97 people studied.
Urine test for prostate cancer may be better than blood test
Los Angeles Times
Score: 2 out of 5 stars
Gets off to bad start with inaccurate headline. The urine tests are not "better" than blood tests --they are complementary tests used to improve the diagnostic accuracy of indeterminate PSA levels.
Urine Test May Help Predict Prostate Cancer
Score: 4 out of 5 stars
Let the data dictate the merits of the test.  Describing it as a "painless urine test' in the lede is cheerleading.  Besides tests requiring catheterization, most urine tests are painfree!
Blood Test May Spot Alzheimer's Before Symptoms Appear
Score: 4 out of 5 stars
So many stories about so many Alzheimer's tests fall short in explaining why sensitivity and specifity is so important in such test - and why some may choose not to be tested.  This story wasn't bad but we point out areas for improvement.
Larger Dose of Zinc Lozenges May Shorten Colds
Health Day
Score: 3 out of 5 stars
Stories about the search for "cures" or even just ways to shorten the span of colds should state that most colds for most people are self-limiting and of short duration.  What is the average duration of this "misery"? Talking about 42% reductions is meaningless without this. 
Stool test good for catching colon cancer: study
Reuters Health
Score: 5 out of 5 stars
This is an important story - and well executed - about an approach to colon cancer screening that arguably doesn't get enough public attention.
Prenatal Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements May Cut Babies' Colds
Health Day
Score: 3 out of 5 stars
When the senior author of the study is quoted as indicating that the results were not "dramatic," it might suggest that results of the study are not all that newsworthy.
The Healthy Skeptic: DHA touted as 'smart' pill for kids
Los Angeles Times
Score: 3 out of 5 stars
This is one time the Healthy Skeptic wasn't skeptical enough.  Whom you choose to interview, and what personal choices you let them describe, can overwhelm the rest of the story's message.
Drink wine, don't get sunburned
Score: 0 out of 5 stars

This feature labels itself as "odd" and "weird health news."  That's fine.  But any story that makes claims - as this one boldly did - without evaluating the evidence - is going to come under our microscope.  People become numb to health care news after reading meaningless stuff like this.



Blog posts from the past week  
Why do some news stories seem determined to help sell new uses for drugs?

Science journalist: unrealistic expectations about science matter

Guest post: Where is the voice of consumers in "Top* Doctors/Best Hospitals" rankings?

Concerns over FDA loosening conflict of interest rules

Blogger's 10 of the strangest current theories about health and disease

Lucky 13, I guess - new health blog rankings for August

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Gary Schwitzer

Logo: Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making