Why did it take 5 weeks for the New York Times to correct its "100% accurate" Alzheimer's test assertion?

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I have a lot of catching up to do after being in Europe for just 4 days.

But I can’t let this one go by without comment. In fact, this issue was one of the first ones raised by German journalists I met with in Dortmund this week. Don’t think people around the world don’t notice the good and the bad in American health/medical/science journalism – especially by the New York Times.

The Times took a long time (5 weeks) to comment on what critics – including me, Paul Raeburn, Charlie Petit and many other journalists (including Times’ ombudsman Arthur Brisbane) wrote about Gina Kolata’s August 10 piece on a “100% accurate” Alzheimer’s test.

But yesterday the paper published a correction, that read, in full:

“An article on Aug. 10 about spinal fluid tests in Alzheimer’s research left the incorrect impression that the test can predict the disease with 100 percent accuracy in all patients. (That impression was reinforced by the headline.) In fact, the test was found to be as much as 100 percent accurate in identifying a signature level of abnormal proteins in patients with memory loss who went on to develop Alzheimer’s — not in identifying patients who “are on their way” to developing the disease.

The article also misinterpreted an element of the researchers’ findings. Among a group of patients who had memory loss and developed Alzheimer’s within five years, every one had protein levels associated with the disease five years before; it was not the case that “every one of those patients with the proteins developed Alzheimer’s within five years.”

And the article misstated the source from which the finding of 100 percent accuracy was drawn. It came from a separate set of patients that the researchers examined to validate the protein signature they had identified in an initial group. (In the initial group, as the article noted, nearly every person with Alzheimer’s had the signature protein levels.)”

Raeburn writes that this isn’t good enough:

“The reporting was in error, the story was in error, and the Times should say so. Enough of this talk of “narrower claims” and “incorrect impressions.” The headline on Brisbane’s post was “The Trouble With Absolutes.” It should have been, “Times Errs on Alzheimer’s Story.”

The Times is the best paper in the country, maybe the world, although I don’t read enough languages to know. Why, then, does this correction read as if it were written by a student hiding under his desk, afraid of a rap on the knuckles?”

The Alliance for Human Research Protection broadened its criticism beyond this single story to an entire series by the Times:

“…a series of articles by Gina Kolata (many on the front page) of The New York Times, under the heading The Vanishing Mind, purport to examine worldwide struggle to find answers about Alzheimer’s disease. However, the articles were written as if the Times was in the business of promoting dubious commercial screens and tests and hype about unproven therapies.

The series has been a disservice to the public–and particularly to families struggling with the care of a loved one suffering from this devastating disease–or cluster of diseases–no one knows for sure, as there is no fail-safe test to confirm the presence of Alzheimer’s.”

For the record, we are not playing Monday-morning quarterback 5 weeks after the fact. Shortly after the story was first published, we published our review of the story on HealthNewsReview.org. Excerpt:

“The story’s suggestion that the spinal fluid analysis used in the study is 100 percent accurate is, in fact, inaccurate. (The “can be 100% accurate” phrase is misleading and unhelpful.) The specificity of the test – about 1/3 of those who tested positive had no evidence of Alzheimer’s – is a big issue.”

Why did it take 5 weeks for the Times’ correction?

What will the Times do to improve its editing and approval process?

We will continue to watch and report.

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