The story fell short on many levels – most importantly, on breaking down the research and its significance for readers. This was a small clinical study with limitations.
The story includes several independent experts for comment, but the article fails to put the study into perspective. With language like, “Clearly… a viable alternative,” readers leave with the wrong impression regarding the significance of the research. The story would have done better to include facts, such as :
Many patients with COPD, a condition often due to long-term use of cigarettes, have shortness of breath with activity resulting in impaired quality of life. Though there are a number of medications that have been available to treat COPD for years, patients often still have symptoms that affect their daily function.Thus, safe and effective new treatments for COPD would be welcome. For the reader of this article, that new treatment would appear to be acupuncture. But there is good reason to believe this is more based on hype and hope than reality and evidence. This is a small study from Japan and even if true, COPD is a heterogeneous disease, meaning that it is crucial to repeat in other settings and patients before declaring it effective. It is also important to know whether this helps a bit or a lot – it isn’t clear from reading this article. Just because acupuncture is safe and may work doesn’t mean it should be embraced. The experts quoted in this piece have lowered the bar with their supportive words. The article needs someone to say the obvious – this may offer hope but let’s wait for larger, more definitive studies. The net result is that the reader is mislead.
The story does not detail the costs associated with an acupuncture treatment (which may often entail out-of-pocket expenses), or how many treatments are necessary before the patient sees a noticeable benefit.
The article did not quantify any results from the study. It didn’t quantify the size of the benefit? Was this a real “game changer” or statistically significant while offering little real improvement in daily activities? How many acupuncture treatments did participants experience before seeing improvements in their quality of life? How much longer were these participants able to walk without becoming breathless? And how were improvements in quality of life measured by the researchers? The story also mentions that acupuncture “may improve stomach function,” but how was this measured? None of these data were discussed further.
Dr. Tong-Joo Gan of Duke University hints that there are few downsides to acupuncture, but the story does not specifically point out any harms or side effects from acupuncture. Probably the key point is at the very end where the acupuncturists say don’t try acupuncture first.
The story gives the reader a good overview of the study design and appropriately mentions the control group, which received the sham acupuncture treatment. However, many details regarding the study are still unclear. Were the 68 people all on the same COPD medications before undergoing the study? How many treatments did each person receive? How long did the benefit last?
Furthermore, the article tilts more in favor of acupuncture treatment, with the use of quotes like, “Clearly it looks like a viable alternative to treat chronic COPD,” as there is no discussion of any limitations of the research, such as the relatively small study size or being only a single blinded study. According to WebMD, “[Acupuncture] makes perfect sense…
There is no disease mongering. The story appropriately details COPD, as well as its symptoms and treatment.
Although the story does not directly quote the study’s authors, it does include three independent experts – two medical doctors and one licensed acupuncturist. However, the article could have benefited if an independent expert specifically addressed any limitations of the study or of acupuncture.
The story does not address any other alternative treatments for COPD, except acupuncture. The implication is that one can use standard meds or those meds plus acupuncture. There are other non-medicine treatments for COPD. If the mechanism for action is relaxation, there are also other forms of relaxation.
Although the story does mention that patients “must choose a licensed and experienced acupuncturist,” it does not detail how many of those professionals practice in the US.
No background information was given in the story. It is unclear how this particular study contributes to the existing body of knowledge regarding acupuncture and COPD.
There is evidence of original reporting, as the story uses three independent experts. Although the article does not rely on the press release, the release details and quantifies more of the study’s design and results, on which the WebMD story could have done more.