How health care news spreads from Oklahoma to the world – when maybe it shouldn't

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Start with a paper on Focused Microwave Thermotherapy posted online by a medical journal on December 22 – ahead of print publication.

Follow with a company news release on January 12.

Then a University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center news release on January 15.

That same day, the Tulsa World published a story under the headline, “Breast cancer treatment pioneered at OU could reduce need for mastectomies,” including the projection that “The therapy could be in widespread use in five to 10 years.”

The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City published a story on January 16, with one of the authors saying, “This therapy is a major advancement for women with later-stage breast cancer. Right now most patients with large tumors lose their breast. With this treatment, along with chemotherapy, we were able to kill the cancer and save the breast tissue.” This same quote – word for word – appears in the University’s news release.

Both of these stories said the technique uses a modified version of Star Wars defense system technology – language straight out of the University news release.

The story spread to the Dallas Morning News, the Associated Press, several TV stations and elsewhere – all detailed in this news release from the company about all the news coverage it’s receiving!

That news release says that the company “is planning to initiate a Phase III study which hopes to fully demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of our focused heat treatment in order for us to be able to commercialize the technology.”

From the sounds of these stories, you might think that proof of safety and effectiveness is already in.

Karen Sepucha.jpg I asked Karen Sepucha, PhD, one of our expert editors on, to look at the journal article. She raises several questions:

• the significant (~20 percent) number of patients excluded from the analysis;
• couldn’t show a positive impact for small or moderate-sized tumors;
• small study (n=28) of patients with large tumors
• it appears that 73% who got microwave actually had breast conserving surgery compared with 93% in the group that got chemotherapy alone. So actually, there are not more patients having breast conserving surgery with the microwave approach;
• a complete lack of data on whether local recurrence is different or whether there are other long term complications (e.g. reading future mammograms, cosmetic result of surgery, pain, etc).

Maybe there are good answers for these questions about the study. But the answers don’t appear in the news stories we saw, because the questions were probably never asked.

Do you see why we push for better scrutiny of studies of new technology? Star Wars quotes from news releases isn’t enough.

Thanks to the journalist who brought this string of events to our attention.

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