Criterion #9 Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Often something that’s lauded as new or novel really isn’t. Or it may be new, but it’s not better. So, when reading about a “new” medical intervention, people deserve to know: What is truly new and different about this idea?

About 23% of the stories we’ve reviewed were rated Not Satisfactory on this criterion.

Drug companies (and device-makers) are very good at promoting their new drugs or products as “novel” to increase initial sales. Yet many “new” treatments, tests, products or procedures are not really novel. A “new” drug may be another member of a well-established therapeutic class of drugs. And even if a drug is the first in a new class of drugs it may offer no more benefit than the drugs that are widely available.

By focusing on one new idea, it may appear that it’s the only thing being researched in the field. Putting this in context of past research helps keep hype in check. That backstory can be hard to find unless the reporter finds a truly independent expert.

We repeat: Newer isn’t always better in health care. And it may not really even be newer. Stories should establish just how novel the new thing is.

Resources for establishing novelty:

  • can provide information about other studies that are underway about a specific treatment or for a particular condition. It can be useful for providing context about something seemingly innovative.
  • With PubMed, you can put in a key word or two and pretty quickly establish whether something is absolutely unique and if not – how long it’s been around and studied.

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of

Satisfactory examples

Cautions and caveats help buoy Guardian story on using high platelet count for cancer detection Researchers liked how the story pointed out that previous research found associations between cancer and thrombocytosis (high platelet count), and a new study strengthens–but doesn’t prove–the link between the two.

New surgical method ‘Sonata’ for uterine fibroids gets thorough look by Inquirer
By explaining several surgical interventions that address uterine fibroids, the story clearly articulates what is novel about the Sonata approach. Well done.

‘Dramatic benefit’ of surgery in kids with epilepsy–potential harms clearly outlined
The Reuters Health article notes this is the first trial of its kind in children. This appears to be accurate. There have been very few randomized trials (a recent Cochrane review found only four, and only one compared surgery to medical therapy); there is a recent trial (ERSET) that went down to age 12, but was almost all in adults.

Not Satisfactory example

U.S. News & World Report story on COPD and vitamin A left us wondering ‘what’s the news?’
It wasn’t clear to reviewers why the story was written in a news magazine. The research that most directly addresses the question of whether vitamin A can help with COPD was apparently conducted 20 years ago. Is there anything more recent? If not, why are we talking about it? Otherwise, readers are left to wonder if they missed the “news” part of the story.

CBS News speculates about what at-home sperm-checking device ‘could’ do
The story takes the stance that this device is superior to others, stating the new prototype “could eventually shake up the world of fertility testing by allowing men to evaluate their sperm in their own homes.” However, at least two at-home, relatively low-cost, and FDA-approved test kits are already on the market. SpermCheck is a simple chemical test that costs about $40-$50, for example, and The Trak is physical test that uses a miniature centrifuge and retails for about $200. Both achieve similar or greater reliability as the prototype described in the story.

PARP inhibitors: STAT’s look at new ovarian cancer drugs should have established why we need more on the market
The story doesn’t adequately establish what’s new or different about these drugs compared to the one already approved PARP inhibitor drug–why all these different ones are needed and are being so hotly researched by various drug companies.

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