WCBS physician-reporter promotes free brain scans. Evidence be damned

This is how NOT to cover health care news. It is one more example in a long list of major media in this country promoting screening tests in the absence of evidence.

Dr. Holly Phillips of WCBS-TV in NY reports about a van that …

…”travels around New York City and offers free MRI brain scans to virtually anyone. Neurosurgeon Dr. Patrick Kelly spearheaded the campaign and believes catching brain tumors early will save lives.

“We’ve scanned over 1,300 people and we have found some astounding things,” he told CBS 2.

Nearly a million Americans are walking around with a brain tumor and don’t even know it. About 25,000 of them are in New York City alone, and by the time brain tumors cause symptoms, often times it’s too late for treatment.”

This, on the other hand, is how you practice quality health care journalism:

The Cancer Letter (subscription or day pass required) did the same story, but reported that “Skeptics say these folks should have their heads examined. Screening experts … say there’s no evidence to support brain scans for asymptomatic people.”

One of those skeptical experts said, ““The question is what is the best use of resources to deal with the brain tumor population? The incidence of brain tumors in a population per year is in the range of 6 to 10 per 100,000 population. So what you would have to do is perform MR scans on 100,000 people to find somewhere between 6 and 10 brain tumors, and of those 6 to 10, about half of those lesions would be benign. It wouldn’t seem to be a reasonable expenditure of resources.”

Things to think about as you compare the two stories:

• The first was done by a physician who has been put on the air as a journalist.
• What is her training in journalism?
• Does she think first like a journalist, or like a doctor?
• If the latter, then her inclination, from her medical training, is probably to test, test, test.

• The Cancer Letter is written by serious journalists.
• They think about evidence, harms along with benefits, and costs.

The latter type of journalism prepares us to think about health care reform.

The former exacerbates the mess we’re in.

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June 12, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I am curious as to your thoughts on a journalist trained student (BS telecom, MAMC), who then wants to go to medical school? Does that fall into the former or the later?

The Publisher

June 12, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I don’t believe in stereotypes.
So please don’t read that into my comments.
It is the “type” of journalism that should be the focus – not necessarily the degree of the person performing it.
Atul Gawande – a physician – does some of the best health care journalism in the country. But I can name you x number of TV docs (especially) who don’t know journalism from advertising.
As my friend Andrew Holtz wrote recently on this blog, “MDs can learn to be journalists; but hiring an MD to cover health is like hiring a general to cover foreign affairs… or an automobile engineer to cover transportation. Medical training includes almost nothing about public health, health behaviors, communications, determinants of health, health care business or all the other facets of the health beat.
The blind spots are all too evident in the reporting by docs who haven’t learned to step out of their technical niche.”
So, in answer to your question, I believe that the journalism-trained student who goes into medicine and then still wants to pursue health care journalism will have a leg up on the medical-school-trained person without any journalism education.
So if that’s you that we’re talking about – I wish you success and look forward to hearing and seeing great things from you.
The Publisher