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Troubling beliefs by health care journalists

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A writer posted a query on the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) listserv last week asking for ideas about state-of-the-art but underused treatments.

Many of the responses were troubling. Some AHCJ members wrote in suggesting:

• MRI is far superior to mammograms for detecting breast cancer (leading another member to write in asking where was the evidence for that “superior” performance in lower mortality rates)
• robotic surgery for prostate cancer (ignoring a study published last week that tracked the runaway use of robotic surgery despite questions about evidence)
• cardiac CT for calcium scoring
• proton beam therapy

None of these can be considered underused given the questions of evidence with each of them.

But this is how some journalists responded when asked.

Thankfully, some voices of reason eventually chimed in on the listserv. Other writers called “state of the art” a marketing term and suggested that it be viewed as a red flag and that writers should “push back against editors who want us to write breathlessly about these gee-whiz procedures and techniques.”

Yes, such push back against editors is important. But you can’t blame editors for the ideas that writers bring to them. Given our experience on, where we’ve seen about 70% of stories fail to adequately discuss costs, benefits and harms of such new approaches, there still is huge problem of gullibility and gee-whiz-ness even in the rank and file of health care journalists.

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