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CBS airs almost cruelly misleading piece on paraplegia

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Former Washington Post health section editor Craig Stoltz, one of our reviewers on HealthNewsReview.org, called it “almost cruelly misleading” the way the CBS Early Show dealt with what it called a “new device helps paraplegics walk again.”

Excerpts of the story review on HealthNewsReview.org:

This CBS Early Show segment on the three-year-old WalkAide medical device manages to put a check next to nearly every item on a list of Health Journalism Worst Practices.

1. It is full of loaded, technically incorrect language: new, revolutionary, miracle. The device is none of these. Twice the segment refers to the device as a “miracle in a box.” It’s not even in a box.

2. The segment makes two statements that are technically correct as worded but broadly misleading through implication:

It says the device is “a promising development in restoring full function” to people once confined to a wheelchair. [Reality: It can temporarily improve the gait of some patients with foot drop syndrome.]

It says it can “restore mobility to patients with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries.” [Reality: It can improve the mobility of patients who are already mobile, and only a fraction of the patients with the conditions listed can be helped by it.]

3. The segment does not report on any research done on the device, or even indicate whether there is any. The evidence of effectiveness cited is a single anecdote.

4. The segment does not mention potential harms, contraindications or limitations. People with pacemakers can’t use it; neither can pregnant women. One cannot wear it while driving.

5. While the segment celebrates the patient as a determined young woman who has earnestly undertaken eight years of rehab, it fails to make clear that she is [therefore] an outlier with untypical results.

6. No independent expert was interviewed to provide some perspective and reality check.

7. The whole “I had to snowboard again” conceit is just a foolish stage show, a clinically irrelevant fatuity. Indeed, the device cannot possibly function when the patient’s feet are strapped into a snowboard.

All that said, the WalkAide appears to be a useful device for some people with foot drop–not new, not a revolution, not a miracle, but a device that can help improve the quality of life for some patients. It can help them walk more normally, perhaps reducing risk of falls, joint damage and muscle atrophy. It may help make their limbs healthier and stronger–though this has not been proven.

The WalkAide cannot help the paralyzed rise miraculously from their wheelchairs any more than a circus-tent preacher can. Yet the report implies this, almost cruelly misleading “the many Americans who have lost the ability to walk.”

Why would a TV network, medical correspondent, producer and host do this in front of millions of people?

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Meredith Gould

July 24, 2009 at 11:53 am

Thanks for calling this out. I assist a woman with quadriplegia and can attest that there’s no shortage of cruel nonsense out there building false hope.