Health News Review

An important reminder – for journalists and for the general public – appears in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.  The paper is entitled, “The Conversion of Cardiovascular Conference Abstracts to Publications,” and it is published right about the same time as the American Heart Association’s own huge Scientific Sessions wrapped up for 2012.   We wrote earlier about some of our concerns about news coverage from this meeting.

The new journal article provides sound reasons for why our concerns about conference news coverage are sound. The researchers analyzed abstracts presented at the American Heart Association (AHA), American College of Cardiology (ACC), and European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Scientific Sessions from 2006-2008. Then they checked how many were published.

Drum roll, please….

  • Less than one-third of the presented abstracts were published within two years of the conference presentation.
  • After five years, the rates rose a bit to 49.7% for AHA, 42.6% for ACC, and 37.6% for ESC .

So while some journalists are glued to coverage of these meetings, publishing daily for general news audiences that may not understand the nuances of the limitations of drawing conclusions from talks presented at scientific meetings, most of this stuff isn’t even published in the medical literature for at least 5 years – if ever!

Why does this matter?

Such news coverage creates a rose-colored view of progress in research.  It may not be inaccurate but it most certainly misleads and lacks important context if it doesn’t present caveats about the limitations.

Don’t forget the important JAMA paper, “Media Coverage of Scientific Meetings: Too Much, Too Soon?” which concluded:

“Results are frequently presented to the public as scientifically sound evidence rather than as preliminary findings with still uncertain validity. With some effort on the part of meeting organizers, journalists, and scientists, it will be possible to better serve the public.”

Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, also answered the “why does this matter?” question with a post on this blog some time two years ago: “Reporting or reading news from a medical meeting?  Read this first.”

So even if we don’t wait on reporting news from scientific conferences, can we please do a better job of offering more complete caveats and context?   The evidence is stacking up on how bad this looks.

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