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Study: cancer news coverage "inappropriately optimistic"

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A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concludes that “News reports about cancer frequently discuss aggressive treatment and survival but rarely discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, or death. These portrayals of cancer care in the news media may give patients an inappropriately optimistic view of cancer treatment, outcomes, and prognosis.”

The authors conducted a content analysis of US cancer news reporting in 8 large-readership newspapers and 5 national magazines, and analyzed 436 articles about cancer.

Only 57 articles (13%) reported that aggressive cancer treatments can fail, and 131 (30%) reported that aggressive treatments can result in adverse events.

The authors comment:

“Very few news reports about cancer discuss death and dying, and even those that do generally do not mention palliative and hospice care. It is surprising that few articles discuss death and dying considering that half of all patients diagnosed as having cancer will not survive.

The tendency of the news to report on aggressive cancer treatments and survival but not on alternatives is also noteworthy given that unrealistic information may mislead the public about the trade-offs between attempts at heroic cures and hospice care. Several studies have suggested that end-of-life information may help patients with cancer develop realistic expectations for end-of-life medical care and improve outcomes. News coverage may also influence patients’ treatment decisions and expectations because patients’ informational needs are often not met by their cancer care providers, who may avoid end-of-life discussions.

How often should the news media discuss treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, and death and dying? Although there is no quantifiable answer, the same educational goals that ideally drive news coverage of cancer treatment and survival should also compel news organizations to address these topics. The media routinely report about aggressive treatment and survival presumably because cancer news coverage is relevant to a large portion of the population, and, for the same reason, similar attention should be devoted to the alternatives.”

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Comments (4)

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Elaine Schattner, M.D.

March 16, 2010 at 11:53 am

These findings are hardly surprising. Most medical publications are written by academic physicians, doctors who work at medical schools and earn a living, in part, by gathering grant support for their research and by successfully publishing their research results.
These doctors sometimes get grants from NIH or other respected institutions to carry out large (i.e. potentially meaningful) clinical investigations to compare older, non-patented treatments with newer ones or placebo. But these results usually take years to come by. Many patients prefer to try “new” treatments if they’re going to go on a trial, so the investigators sometimes have trouble accruing sufficient participants for trials of older drugs and simpler technologies. It’s a slow process, one that’s hard for many faculty to rest their careers on.
By contrast, when researchers test what are thought to be cutting-edge, promising drugs or devices in trials sponsored by drug companies, there’s a lot of invested capital to make sure that good news gets out.

Greg Pawelski

March 16, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Speaking of science-by-press release bias. What about peer-review Journal bias?
Peer review lacks consistent standards. A peer reviewer often spends about four hours reviewing research that may have taken months or years to complete, but the amount of time spent on a review and the expertise of the reviewer can differ greatly.
Recent disclosures of fraudulent or flawed studies in professional medical journals have called into question the merits of their peer-review system. Passing peer-review is not the scientific equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. They do not control the world’s information flow.
The power of the internet is amazing. All papers can be viewed on internet websites, not just those that would selectively be handled by so-called peer-reviewed journals. Papers are sent to so-called first rate journals. Get it peer-reviewed. If they are accepted, great. If not, up it goes on the internet. And the information gets out there even more quickly and effectively than it would have been had the journal done the right thing and publish what are very good and important papers.
Release of news about medical findings is among the most tightly managed in the country. Journals control when the public learns about findings by setting dates when the research can be published (if they allow them published at all). They impose severe restrictions on what authors can say publicly, even before they submit a manuscript, and they have penalized authors for infractions by refusing to publish their papers.
Journal Editors are the “gatekeepers” of information (only information that they allow). What’s that saying, “if peer-review were a drug, it would never be marketed.” Peer-review is nothing but a form of vetting (whether it be anger, jealousy, or whatever). Reviewers are in fact often competitors of the authors of the papers they scrutinize, raising potential conflicts of interest.
Such problems are far more embarrassing for journals because of their claims for the superiority of their system of editing. Journal Editors do not routinely examine authors’ scientific notebooks, they rely on peer reviewers’ criticisms.
Then there is the problem with respected cancer journals publishing articles that identify safer and more effective treatment regimens, yet few oncologists are incorporating these synergistic methods into their clinical practice. Because of this, cancer patients often suffer through chemotherapy sessions that do not integrate all possibilities.