Science by news release

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Sandy Szwarc, on her Junkfood Science blog, blasts lazy news coverage this week of “a study reportedly finding that acupuncture works to reduce the side effects of breast cancer treatment as effectively as conventional medicine, without the side effects.”

She counted at least 144 news stories and tied them to a news release issued by the Henry Ford Health System. She wrote:

“Whether it’s been from WebMD to the New York Times and every media outlet in between, the medical news has all simply repeated the script provided in the press release. ABC’s medical science reporter, John McKenzie, hadn’t even read the press release carefully to catch the date the abstract was to be presented and in his story published three days before it happened, he said the findings “were presented today at the ASTRO annual meeting,â€? as if he’d been there!

What are press releases? Marketing, of course. …

The level of media hype this week far outstripped the scientific merits of this research, but, no doubt, will encourage the spending of countless dollars on a modality that the strongest evidence suggests is little more than a placebo. That concerns us, too. At a time when everyone is talking about how expensive our healthcare system is, we can’t afford to waste public resources, or our insurance premiums. Dr. Walker was quoted in USA Today this morning lamenting that “many insurance plans don’t cover acupuncture,â€? while they do cover the medication. Surely, all of this marketing wasn’t about money.

Saddest is the false hope and misinformation that untold numbers of breast cancer patients heard this week, the subtle reinforcement of feelings of distrust and inferiority of their medical care and modern medicine, and the disservice these media stories provide by exploiting women at the most vulnerable time in their lives.”

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Marilyn Mann

September 29, 2008 at 2:00 am

Some other people have blogged on that study (check Respectful Insolence). I agree that the study does not show that acupuncture is better than placebo. Of course, the study did not compare acupuncture to placebo. It compared it to Effexor. Effexor has been shown to improve hot flashes in some women — but not by that much. In addition, it causes side effects in some people, including headache, insomnia, hypertension and sexual dysfunction. Women who are breast cancer survivors can’t take estrogen.
Sometimes medical science doesn’t have the answers.

Marilyn Mann

September 29, 2008 at 2:04 am

Another thing — Sandy Szwarc is the only blogger I know of that doesn’t permit people to comment on her blog. Neither does she provide an email address.
I tried contacting her at the email address you gave me, and she did not respond.
The above factors are a disincentive for me to read her blog.

DyNama

October 1, 2008 at 11:29 pm

I’ve many times been surprised by the difference between a study and it’s press releases. Ms Szwarc also recently said, “Science doesn’t issue press releases. Marketing departments do that.” She also pointed out a study in a 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that concluded that press releases rarely reveal a study’s limitations and typically present the study’s results in ways that exaggerate the findings.
i’m a big fan of Sandy’s Junkfoodscience. i too have been dismayed at times that she has no comments or contact info, and all i can say in her defense is that her column is not so much a forum as it is a serialized book, seeing as how books don’t facilitate comments with other readers or contact with the author either.