The latest analysis of health news – we hear too much about early research
This post continues a series of regular updates from the team at Media Doctor Australia about their latest analyses of media coverage of new drugs and medical treatments.
Amanda Wilson writes:
An ongoing issue/problem with Media Doctor Australia is the lag-time between stories appearing in the news and our reviews of them being posted on the site. This is primarily due to the fact that our reviewers work in a voluntary capacity.
It’s a feast and famine existence, and the past month has provided a glut of 20 stories that has taken a while to work through, while at the beginning of August there are none that fit our inclusion criteria – new health interventions for human use.
The top rated stories (4-5 stars) included research into a form of muscular dystrophy, an eye test to detect Alzheimer’s Disease, a surgical intervention to prevention HIV in Africa, a warning on surgical mesh used in prolapse repairs. This last story was covered by The Australian and is a big story about very nasty complications, which didn’t appear to be picked up by other media outlets.
The general theme of the past month’s stories rated on Media Doctor was ‘early research’ – some of it positively foetal including conference presentations, a review of case studies on a treatment for serious poisoning, as well as some ‘bench top’ research. Early research usually interests a small minority of people, mainly other researchers in the area.
There have been calls to curb media coverage of early research in an effort to restrict raising false hope for people searching for treatments.
The problem with most of this type of research is that it’s sold by the media and the researchers as having real potential which is mostly not the case.
There was one exception in the story from NineMSN mentioned above about a form of muscular dystrophy which made very clear that the drug is in the earliest phases of testing.
Most early research covered in the media will sink never to be seen again, some will inform further research and a small number will complete all the required levels of rigorous testing and become part of mainstream treatment or testing.
The Media Doctor average rating scores on the quality of the reporting were low at 43% (from a potential 100%) and the most common problems were the lack of independent comment and reporting of benefits in a meaningful way.
One story opens with the statement that “Australia’s drug regulator will review the safety of popular quit-smoking drug Champix following research linking it to a 72 per cent increased risk of serious cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.”
The 72% is a relative increase but the absolute increase is actually only 0.24% (0.82 to 1.06%) or one of every 417 people who take the drug for up to one year will have an additional cardiac event. And that small increase needs to be set against the number of people who will avoid heart attacks as a result of stopping smoking.
These numbers were provided in the scientific article and should have been used. It would be interesting to know where the journalist got the figures used in the report. Did they come from the researcher, the journal or was it an editorial decision?
We also published a piece ‘Media Doctor – You’re Not Perfect’ by Janelle Miles, Medical Writer at The Courier-Mail, giving a no-holds-barred insight to her thoughts and experiences.
• Stay tuned for another post from the Media Doctor Australia team, on their experiences with social media
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