Problems with news releases from academic medical centers

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Great paper by Woloshin & Schwartz (and others) in the current Annals of Internal Medicine, “Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?”

Press releases issued by 20 academic medical centers frequently promoted preliminary research or inherently limited human studies without providing basic details or cautions needed to judge the meaning, relevance, or validity of the science. Our findings are consistent with those of other analyses of pharmaceutical industry and medical journal press releases, which also revealed a tendency to overstate the importance and downplay (or ignore) the limitations of research.
The quickest strategy for improvement would be for centers to issue fewer releases about preliminary research, especially unpublished scientific meeting presentations, because findings often change substantially—or fail to hold up—as studies mature. Forty percent of meeting abstracts and 25% of abstracts that garner media attention are never subsequently published as full reports in medical journals. Similarly, centers should limit releases about animal or laboratory research. Although such research is important, institutions should not imply clinical benefit when it does not exist (and may not for years, if ever): Two thirds of even highly cited animal studies fail to translate into successful human treatments.

When press releases are issued, they should include basic study facts and explicit cautions. For example, press releases should remind journalists that strong inferences cannot be drawn from uncontrolled studies, or that surrogate outcomes do not always translate into clinical outcomes. Although good press releases will probably help, quality reporting also requires good critical evaluation skills. Fortunately, journalists have opportunities to acquire these skills, through such programs as the Association of Health Care Journalists seminars; the Knight Science Journalism Medical Evidence Boot Camp at MIT; and “Medicine in the Media: The Challenge of Reporting on Medical Research,” a workshop sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Investigators can also do better. They could forgo requesting releases for studies with obvious limitations and review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic).

By issuing fewer but better press releases, academic centers could help reduce the chance that journalists and the public are misled about the importance or implications of medical research. Centers might get less press coverage, but they would better serve their mission: to improve the health of their communities and the larger society in which they reside.

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