Some Journalists’ “Kid In The Candy Store” Portrayal of US Health Care

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We often benefit from some of the best health care journalism the world has ever seen. It’s investigative, in-depth, analytical, creative, gutsy, important and helpful. It raises questions about health policy and health care reform, about conflicts of interest in medical research, and about the way things are done in the massive health care industry.

But on stories about new treatments, tests, products and procedures, US news organizations day in and day out don’t do a very good job.

We are pleased that the journal PLoS Medicine has published our paper, “How Do US Journalists Cover Treatments, Tests, Products and Procedures? An Evaluation of 500 Stories.” It summarizes our first two years’ experience on HealthNewsReview.org.

The brief summary is that between 62-77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence and the existence of other options when covering health care products and procedures. You could call it a “kid in the candy store” portrayal of US health care, whereby everything is made to look terrific, risk-free, and without a price tag. Nothing could be further from the truth.

PLoS stands for Public Library of Science. The journal is a peer-reviewed, international, open-access journal.

The journal’s editors published an editorial, “False Hopes, Unwarranted Fears: The Trouble With Medical News Stories.” In it, the editors write; “Schwitzer’s alarming report card of the trouble with medical news stories is thus a wakeup call for all of involved in disseminating health research—researchers, academic institutions, journal editors, reporters and media organizations—to work collaboratively to improve the standards of health reporting.”

And three Australian researchers commented on our website’s routine analysis of news stories “for any signs of disease mongering” in an essay entitled “Disease Mongering Is Now Part of the Global Health Debate.”

We’re pleased that PLoS Medicine acknowledged the complicity of different parties in the often-messy health/medical news-making sausage factory. They even looked in the mirror and saw the role that journals play in promoting hype and the role they could play in educating journalists and – through them – consumers. We don’t mind telling you that a similar manuscript was rejected earlier by another medical journal. Part of the rejection note stated:

“While we applauded the standards (that HealthNewsReview.org employs), some of us wondered if it was realistic to expect that most physicians and scientist-authors, let alone journalists, could realistically meet those standards given the generally poor training all receive in the systematic review and interpretation of evidence, and the presentation of that evidence and its contexts in written form.”

We could not disagree more. Is this to say that physicians and scientist-authors – much less journalists – should be let off the hook for their inability to accurately present and interpret evidence? We were shocked by this response. It may, in large part, explain why we get what we get from some journals and from some news stories that rely on journals.

So we are grateful for the peer-reviewed publication opportunity through a journal like PLoS Medicine.

We are also happy to report that recently we have been contacted by researchers in China and Japan who are interested in launching web projects similar to HealthNewsReview.org in their countries.

We welcome your comments on this note, on our journal article, and/or on the accompanying editorials.

Click here to visit our forum

We also invite you to listen to the video clip with some of my additional thoughts and perspectives on this work.

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