Health Care Conflict of Interest Could be a Full-Time Beat

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A collection of recent stories by mid-sized Midwestern newspapers are worthy of special attention.  They all reported on issues of conflict of interest in health care and medical research. 

A series of reports by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked tough questions about financial ties between drug companies and medical school physician faculty members.

* "Doctors Face Pressure To Disclose All Side Pay

 * "UW Psychiatrist Paid To Speak About Disputed Anti-Smoking Pill"

 * "UW Researcher in Clinical Trial Consults for Medical Firm"

 * "Drug Firms Wine, Dine and Pay Up for Doctors’ Speeches"

  * "UW Doctors Speak for Drug Companies: Three Employees’ Disclosure Forms Offer Examples of Side Jobs"

An investigative piece by the Minneapolis Star Tribune found that “A professor who is leading the University of Minnesota Medical School’s effort to write tougher ethics rules was himself disciplined in 2004 for secretly steering a $501,000 research grant to his own company.”

These are tough issues for newspapers to dig into – especially in these difficult newsroom times.  But it is vital that journalists help the public think about industry influence on health care as these newspapers did. 

Another mid-sized paper, The Oregonian, published a terrific piece that discussed a “widespread problem in the health care system: the tendency to embrace new technology without waiting for proof that it’s better than older, cheaper, time-tested solutions.”

It is refreshing to see any journalist try to educate readers that, in US health care, more is not always better and newer is not always better. 

At the other end of the spectrum is a series of dreadful pieces on network TV news. 

• CBS Early Show, “Heart Score:  New Treatment for Heart Failure.” Our summary:

“The plural of anecdote is not data.  Viewers were told one very positive patient story, but nothing about whether that’s a representative outcome. No independent sources.  Nothing on harms or costs.”

• CBS Early Show, “Breakthrough for MS.”  Our summary:

“Strength: it emphasized this was a small, early study. But it focused exclusively on one patient with an excellent outcome, giving no broader data from the study. No independent sources were quoted.”

• CBS 60 Minutes, “Fountain of Youth in a Wine Rx?”  Our summary:

“The story approach was very similar to 60 Minutes’ coverage of what they called the "Kanzius Cancer Cure" months ago. Cheerleading. Lacking evidence. Failure to interview independent sources.”

•  NBC Today Show, “Lose Weight While You Sleep.”  Our summary:

“NBC gave 5.5 minutes of free publicity to Glamour magazine’s pseudo-scientific experiment, then made bold, baseless projections that women would "probably add about 7 years to their life". Amazing.”

• NBC Today Show, “Today’s Matters of the Heart: Dr. Nancy’s Personal Wake-up Call.”   Our summary:

“A 6-minute segment almost completely devoid of evidence and data, riding the single personal anecdote of the network’s medical editor. Disease-mongering. Incomplete story on heart CT scans.”

There are journalists – like those we profiled above in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oregon, who are working hard to educate readers on important health care issues.  But are their efforts being drowned out by the impact of network TV segments like those above – reaching millions with incomplete, non-evidence-based, single source stories that may drive up unrealistic expectations in the worried well? 

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