One of our reviewers wrote, "WebMD apparently was phoning it in on this one." Read why.
There was no independent perspective or interview of any kind conducted for this story. And the lack of expert feedback shows in the mediocre evaluation of the evidence, vague discussion of benefits, and failure to provide important context about previous research in this area. Perhaps most troubling, the story did not mention that the study being covered was funded by the manufacturer of the probiotic supplement being tested–one of several reasons for readers to look cautiously on the findings.
It would be nice to offer parents an effective evidence-based treatment for infant colic–a condition typically characterized by at least 3 hours of crying at least 3 days per week during the first few months of life. Although many will consider this trial to be proof of probiotics’ effectiveness (an impression bolstered by WebMD’s incurious coverage), a small study such as this one can never conclusively establish a treatment benefit. Failure to discuss this uncertainty leaves readers with only half the story.
The story did not mention how much treatment with this probiotic costs. A month’s supply costs about $40 according to one Internet retailer–information that easily could have been included in the piece.
The story reports the number of minutes per day that children cried in the probiotic and placebo group — a reasonable characterization of the main findings. Although we’ll award a borderline satisfactory, we wish the story had avoided some of the following vague language:
Probiotics are generally regarded as safe for healthy children. Nevertheless, the mechanism through which these bacteria work are not well understood, and there have been reports of severe infections attributable to probiotics in critically ill or immunocompromised patients. We don’t necessarily think the story needed to get into this level of detail about potential adverse effects, but some comment about the general safety (or lack thereof) of this probiotic strain should have been provided
This one was close, but ultimately unsatisfactory in our opinion. Although the study provides a reasonable explanation of the intervention, the measures, and the main results, it failed to discuss the limitations of a study which included just 50 patients. Small, early studies often report dramatic benefits from a new therapy (especially when they are industry-sponsored); the benefits seen in subsequent larger studies is usually less impressive for a variety of reasons. Had the study contacted an independent expert for a comment on the findings (another deficiency discussed below under the "Sources" criterion), they likely would have provided this context.
The story did not exaggerate the effects of infant colic.
A real shortcoming. No independent perspective was provided nor were the researchers themselves interviewed for the story. In addition, the story failed to point out that the study was funded by probiotic manufacturer BioGaia.
The story notes that there is no known cause or cure for infant colic. However, the story should have noted that colic goes away on it’s own after several weeks, and is not a "disease", therefore may not need treatment. A close call, but satisfactory.
Not enough information here. The probiotic tested in this study is actually a commercially available product distributed by the study’s sponsor, BioGaia–information which was never provided to readers. (More on this later under the "Sources" criterion below.) Moreover, the story attributed the benefits observed in the study to the Lactobacillus reuteri species of probiotic; it should have pointed out that the researchers tested a specific commercial strain of L. reuteri known as Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17 938. Different strains of the same probiotic are known to produce widely varying effects, so the reduction in crying observed in the study might not be seen with other strains of L. reuteri.
The story failed to mention important background here. The study reported on was actually a follow-up to a previous open label study (the researchers knew which children were getting what treatment) conducted by these same investigators and which also found a benefit for L reuteri on colic. The fact that this second, blinded trial has confirmed the previous findings should increase our confidence that something real is happeneing here. Still, as previously noted, larger, independent studies will be needed to conclusively establish a benefit for probiotics on colic.
We couldn’t find any evidence that this story relied on a news release. Considering that nobody was interviewed, however, the best we can do is call it not applicable.