Today on this site we’ve reviewed three stories that made claims about a new Alzheimer’s Disease test. Each was far less than what it could have been. Here are the reviews, for your convenience:
Also today I blogged about my concerns over a new American Cancer Society ad campaign, “Screening is Seeing.”
It strikes me that there’s a common theme between what was missing in the Alzheimer’s test stories and what bothered me about the ACS screening ad.
One of our story reviewers, journalist Andrew Holtz, wrote to me after reviewing the three Alzheimer’s stories:
“One general comment is the responsibility of journalists to word stories in a way that avoids lazy assumptions that “it’s better to know.” Not only do the results of this study document how many false positives this test would produce if used in isolation. Identifying someone as having (or likely to develop) an untreatable condition is likely to create great mischief while providing a benefit in only very specific circumstances.”
Granted, the Cancer Society ad wasn’t about untreatable conditions. But it did promote the broad, vague “it’s better to know” concept, drumming that into consumers minds once again.
Holtz writes about “providing a benefit in only very specific circumstances.” Messages about screening also need to be specific – for specific audiences for whom the evidence is clear. Otherwise the messages may encourage screening in populations for whom the uncertainties mount, and for whom the potential harms may start to stack up with the potential benefits.
Sometimes you just need to step back, connect the dots, and see the firehose of “screen, screen, screen…test, test, test” messages that deluge the American public. And realize there has to be a better way.
Addendum 4:20 pm Central time 8/11: Mary Carmichael of Newsweek built on my criticism of the ACS ad campaign and improved on it by creating a mock counter-ad. Get the message, ACS?