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Teaching moment about scrutinizing new screening tests: rein in the hype

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A journalist wrote to me last week urging us to review stories about a study making claims about a new colon cancer DNA screening test. The journalist called the news “PR-driven hooey.”

We looked closely at four stories on the study. We found them all lacking for a variety of reasons.

Links to the full reviews:

• Philadelphia Inquirer

• New York Times

• HealthDay

• WebMD

Among the problems we found among the four stories:

• failure to include any independent perspective and using only input from conflicted individuals (in fact one story included the comments of a conflicted researcher who admitted “I haven’t looked under the hood” at the new findings!);

• failure to establish how very preliminary were these findings and that the kind of study that was done tends to overestimate success;

• failure to report that the DNA test in question isn’t the only new test in development;

• cheerleading language from two stories referring to the search for “the Holy Grail” – one of them saying it “appears to be getting close”;

• emphasizing potential benefits and minimizing of potential harms – a common journalistic pitfall in reporting on screening tests;

• failure to give any meaningful data-backed comparison of the new test with existing colon cancer screening tests including other blood stool tests;

• inflated estimates of how many people don’t get colon cancer screening now – with one story saying only 40% do and another saying only 20% do. But the fact is that the CDC BRFSS survey estimates that about 60% of US adults are up to date with screening, most with colonoscopy. Why would journalists use such inflated estimates, except that they got their estimates from conflicted researchers who stand to gain in some way from promotion of these findings and this new test?

Over and over again we point out journalists’ failure to apply healthy skepticism to screening tests.

They seem hell-bent on promoting the search for weapons of mass destruction inside all of us.

More balance, more evaluation of evidence, more healthy skepticism is needed.

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