Health News Review

The story’s language swings back and forth in a confusing way over whether this is an association or a cause and effect finding.  Reuters story was better in small but significant ways.

Our Review Summary

As strongly suggestive as a large, long-term observational study may be – and as important as the research may be as a piece of the puzzle of answering research questions – such a study cannot establish cause and effect.  So news stories that use causal language (“benefit…risk reduction”) should be edited more carefully.  Read our primer on association versus causation.


Why This Matters

It matters because we need to start educating the public that not all studies are equal. Also, people are exhausted by (and suspicious of) the constant stream of information about what will make them healthier and thinner, only to find out later that the research was debunked.


Criteria

Not Applicable

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The cost of aspirin is not in question.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

We’re going to take an admittedly hard-line stance on this because we think such a story can easily do a better job.

The story acknowledges at one point that the study “found an association, not cause and effect.”  Yet it uses cause and effect language in various places, such as:

  • “the benefit” in the second sentence.
  • “16% risk reduction” and “most of the reduced risk”

“Benefit” and “risk reduction” and “reduced risk” convey more than an association.  Those terms convey cause and effect.  Take aspirin, get the “benefit” of “reduced risk.”  This study, strongly suggestive though it may be given the numbers of people involved, cannot establish cause and effect.

So the suggestion of benefit needs to be couched in more careful language than this story did.

The competing Reuters story gave absolute risk reduction and was more cautious in general in interpreting results.

 

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story acknowledged that “even low-dose aspirin can lead to problems such as serious gastrointestinal bleeding.”

 

Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The story had two key lines:

  • one a quote from the researcher that “our results provide additional support for the potential benefit.”
  • He found an association, not cause and effect.

Unfortunately, the story contradicted these two points with some of the language used to describe “benefit” and “risk reduction” as already noted.   Nonethless, we won’t ding it in two different places for the same flaw.

Reuters did a better job, though, of itemizing limitations of the work.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering at play.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Again, we’ll take a hard-line approach.

Yes, the story had an additional source, an editorial writer.  And yes, it disclosed the industry ties of that editorial writer and the fact that he holds a patent for chemoprevention use of aspirin.

It is understandable that the story would turn to Dr. Baron’s comments, since he wrote the accompanying editorial and since he has published extensively on this topic.

But, by definition, since he was the only other source used, there was no independent source used in the story.

By contrast, Reuters had no problem finding a truly independent source.

 

Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

At least the story included this line:  “Many other strategies will also reduce the risk of cancer.  Among them:  engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet and not smoking cigarettes.”

Not Applicable

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

The availability of aspirin is not in question.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story at least acknowledges “a previous study by others,” making at least passing reference to the fact that this is not the only research on this question. Barely satisfactory, though, as the Reuters story gives additional context to be clear what contribution the new study makes/

Satisfactory

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

There’s no evidence this story relied on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 8 Satisfactory


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