A journalist brought this to my attention. It’s a case of dueling messages on the websites of the two big Chicago newspapers. One is a news story. The other is nothing but an unvetted health care industry news release.
On a Chicago Sun-Times website, a local medical center posts a news release touting its “new procedure” to treat atrial fibrillation – an irregular heart beat in which the upper chambers of the heart fire irregularly.
First point: is this common for a major newspaper to post medical center news releases on their website in this unfiltered manner?
Second point: the column allows the medical center to boast that it ” is the first hospital in Illinois to offer what’s known as the “Convergent Procedure,” a treatment that combines the skills of a cardiac surgeon and an electrophysiologist, a physician who specializes in the electrical activity of the heart.” The approach uses catheter ablation and surgery “to create lesions, or scar tissue, around the upper chambers of the heart and pulmonary veins by using radiofrequency. This blocks the electrical stimulus that causes the rapid heartbeat. ”
When I checked, this sponsored content comes up high in a Google News search if you look for atrial fibrillation – the condition that is the target of the approach. So if Chicago-area residents are searching on this term, there’s a good chance they’ll find this promo piece.
But just three days earlier, on the Chicago Tribune website, a Reuters story reported on questions about catheter ablation – just part of the above combined or convergent approach:
“A new procedure to treat the common heart rhythm problem atrial fibrillation may offer only short-lived relief for a significant portion of patients, according to California researchers.
Based on statewide data, they found 30 percent of treated patients were admitted to the hospital with the same problem within two years.
And one out of every 20 patients suffered complications during the procedure, such as bleeding, perforation of a blood vessel, or, rarely, stroke.
The procedure, called catheter ablation, is fairly new and hasn’t been studied much outside clinical trials.
…Re-hospitalizations for atrial fibrillation are fairly frequent, but they are hospitalizations and hospitalizations are expensive,” said (a Stanford cardiologist who had just published a new study).
She cautioned that for the majority of the complications, it was impossible to say from the data how serious they were. She added that catheter ablation has been shown to improve some patients’ quality of life more than drugs, although it hasn’t been shown to help people live longer.”
How are consumers supposed to sort through this?
I asked Dr. Wes Fisher, Chicago-area electrophysiologist and active blogger, to comment. He wrote me:
First, the success rates (i.e., mortality advantage) of this technique have not been found to be superior to conventional catheter ablation or medical therapies for atrial fibrillation in carefully controlled trials.
Second, the advertised technique is hardly “less invasive” than other techniques. Surgery + catheters is more “invasive” than catheters alone. And just because it is more invasive does not make it better therapy.
Third, no potential complications or limitations of the technique are mentioned in the article – only rosy outcomes. Unbalanced PR pieces like this should raise significant red flags for patients.
I’ll end by repeating my first point above: Why does the Sun-Times post unfiltered health care news releases such as this?
ADDENDUM ON JANUARY 18:
We just came across an example in the Tribune that is nearly as bad: a story on a new technology that provides just one glowing patient anecdote – the same one profiled in a medical center’s news release – with no discussion of technology costs or of outcomes data (benefits or harms). Chicago readers deserve better than this.