Crucial information was missing in this story. What were the test results in the people without Alzheimer’s disease? What’s the sensitivity and specificity of the test? Does ABC even know to ask?
First let’s address a recurring problem in many TV health news stories. The anchor said, “From the British Medical Journal comes a new test…..” The test didn’t come from the BMJ. Neither the BMJ – nor any journal – conducts research. That’s sloppy writing. And it’s inaccurate writing. It was an article published in the BMJ – a scientific article meant to generate discussion among scientists. And if you don’t grasp that basic tenet of scientific communication, you shouldn’t be reporting this kind of news.
This story covers a recently published study describing a new questionnaire called Test Your Memory (TYM) that was designed to detect Alzheimer’s disease. But only one concrete piece of evidence supporting TYM was provided. TYM appears to be sensitive in detecting Alzheimer’s disease in 93% of a group of older people already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s compared to the standard mini mental-state exam which detected 52% of the cases.
The story didn’t explain that the study included only about 100 people with Alzheimer’s disease, other types of dementia or cognitive impairment.
What were the results in the people without Alzheimer’s disease who took the test?
Consumers need to be educated about both the specificity and sensitivity of tests. This story didn’t do that.
While the results were promising and the research was well-conducted, the findings are premature to suggest that this test should be used by the general public as implied in the story.
This story is accurate that it really doesn’t cost anything to take the test. Anyone can download the test from the Internet for free.
The main finding of the one research study examining TYM was provided. TYM appears to be sensitive in detecting Alzheimer’s disease in 93% of a group of older people already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s compared to the standard mini mental-state exam which detected 52% of the cases. Other potential advantages of TYM are described including that it consists of 10 questions on the front and back of a sheet of paper and can be taken in about 5-10 minutes.
No harms of taking the TYM test were noted. A potential harm could be unfounded anxiety in someone who didn’t score well and an increase in trips to the doctor for people with no memory problems.
This story provides very little scientific evidence about the new test. The medical expert makes a statement that one study showed that TYM was able to predict Alzheimer’s disease in 93% of people tested who already have Alzheimer’s disease compared with 52% with the standard mini mental-state exam. While the results are promising, this piece fails to provide any details about the study. For example, the study was small and the TYM was only tested in 139 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, other types of dementia or mild cognitive impairment. (Five hundred forty people without Alzheimer’s disease also took the test.) Diagnostic tests of this sort tend to look accurate when given to patients who are known to have the condition of interest. It would have been more useful to use the precious seconds in this story to describe how the test performs when given to the 540 persons who do not have Alzheimer’s Disease.
This piece could send the ‘worried well’ running off to see their doctor. The medical expert agrees with the host that a person should contact their doctor if they don’t score well on the the test. What is this going to create, since it is likely that a proportion of people will have false positive test results.
Only one medical expert was interviewed who presented a positive review of the test. Are there other perspectives that weren’t represented in the segment? We think so.
This piece indicates that another questionnaire, the mini mental-status examination, is commonly used. However, the story should have indicated that other questionnaires and tests, such as psychiatric exams and brain scans, are also used to detect symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
This story indicates the new screening test for Alzheimer’s disease, "Test Your Memory", is widely available and accessible on the Internet.
This story makes TYM seem novel and in fact there are interesting aspects to the test. However, it is a questionnaire and there are many short, self-administered screening tests in the literature that estimate cognitive function. This one will need to be compared head to head with other surveys before we can see whether it truly has better diagnostic testing characteristics.
We can’t be sure of the extent to which a news release impacted story selection or content.