Health News Review

I wonder if one of the following is being observed in the Star Tribune newsroom this month:

  • Be Nice To Your Local Medical Device Industry Month
  • Report On Surgical Approaches To High Blood Pressure Month
  • Open Mike Month:  Tell Us Good Things About Your Company & We’ll Print It

In a little more than a month, this is the fourth time we’ve written about what appears to be a clear pattern of writing good stuff about local health care industries but not taking a lead role in the negative stories.   The three previous:

And the hits just keep on coming.  Another front-page device industry story appeared in the front page of Saturday’s business section, “Fooling the Brain:  CVRx has a new method…

Now let me emphasize a few things:

  • I’m not picking on the Star Tribune.  I’d write about such a clear trend if I saw it in Medford or Monterey or Mudville – not just because I live in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area.
  • But not all cities have such a presence of medical device companies – which would seem to put a special responsibility on the paper covering this local industry.
  • On the one hand, reporting on the activities of local industry would seem to be a positive thing to do. These companies employ local residents.  They contribute to the local economy.
  • Sometimes the Star Tribune’s health business journalists do a fine job.  Case in point:  On the same day as this latest cheerleading piece, The Strib published “State health plan faces new future,” which led me to write the journalist an email of congratulations.
  • But read our critiques (above and below) to see what’s missing in the Star Tribune’s recent coverage of medical devices.

In this latest example, the opening paragraph doesn’t even refer back to the front page story of just a few days ago about renal denervation approaches. But now it provides a new platform for another local player, reporting:  “While dozens of medical device makers are racing to treat medication-resistant hypertension by burning nerves inside arteries in the kidneys, Minneapolis firm CVRx is coming at the problem from a  different direction.” So this is like “medical device platform du jour.”  It is as if CVRx called asking for equal time and got it.

Other observations:

  • Early, often and throughout, the CVRx CEO gets most of the ink. “It works…” says the CEO. How gratuitous. Would we expect a CEO) to say anything different?  How about some truly independent expert perspectives?
  • Then a doc with stock options in the company is quoted about “changes that are really significant.” Can you spell COI?
  • “Yared said patients in the Barostim neo studies have averaged a systolic pressure of 183; the device lowered the pressure of about half those patients to below 140.”  How many were in those studies?  In how many centers?  For how long were they treated/followed? Did BP reduction last?
  • “Implanting the device usually takes an hour or two and can be done on an outpatient basis…” – whose experience is this?  What’s the learning curve?
  • The story allows the CEO (and others) to say the CVRx may be a better approach than renal denervation.  Well, shouldn’t this have been part of the front page story of a week ago? (Which was not just front page biz section on a Saturday as this one was but front page of the entire paper on a weekday.)
  • The story explains that the approach is already being sold for treating HBP in Europe.  Yet there’s no mention of cost. They’re not giving it away for free across the pond.
  • CEO “Yared said he expects the company to become profitable before FDA approval.”  So come on, Star Tribune readers, invest now! Why wait for conclusive data?
  • “Despite the uncertainties of the regulatory climate for medical devices, John Nehra, a special partner with NEA, said the large hypertension market — and CVRx’s technology — makes it a good bet.” – Yeah, that damned regulatory climate that demands solid data!
  • We think the technology works,” Nehra said. “Because of its programmability and adjustability, it works better than surgical intervention.” – This still IS a surgical intervention!

To ensure that I wasn’t too close to the topic as a Twin Cities resident, I again asked an East Coast expert (he could have been West Coast, North Coast, South Pole…I just wanted someone who didn’t live here) and one of our leading story reviewers and bloggers, Harold DeMonaco, to weigh in.  He wrote:

“I think that a series devoted to local industry’s development could be a positive piece of journalism (at least from a reader’s perspective) if done correctly.  I think that there is a line that is easily crossed however from reporting to marketing.  This piece goes over the edge and looks like it could have been written by the marketing department of CVRx.

As I pointed out in the blog last week, lowering blood pressure is a surrogate for reducing cardiovascular risk.  We know that not all blood pressure lowering is created equal from the ALLHAT study.  My comments also included carotid artery stimulation devices as well as renal artery denervation.

It is clear that the reporter and newspaper have little or no intention of changing their ways.  Perhaps these stories would be a good presentation for the next annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists.”

DeMonaco and I have conducted a number of workshops for journalists – one of them at an annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists.  It appears that I’ll be leading another workshop when AHCJ meets in Boston in March.  We’ll need to find time to talk about these examples – and other issues with covering health business stories.

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