Reflections on a week of health care stories that raised unrealistic expectations

I wrote about this theme in today’s weekly email digest that not all of you receive, so I wanted to recapture the theme here. (You can sign up to receive these weekly emails here; they include links to everything posted on the site in the previous week. Here’s an example of what the emails look like. )

Last week I blogged about a science journalist’s musings about a cartoon that conveyed the message that the public’s unrealistic expectations about science matter.

That is a major theme of our project: trying to improve news stories that raise unrealistic expectations about health care – news that may promote undue demand of unproven ideas that may, in the end, cause more harm than good.

Think about unrealistic expectations and think about the possible cumulative impact of stories like these from the past week:

• A story saying a new drug for advanced breast cancer “shows promise” when, in fact, it shrunk one breast tumor out of 97 women studied!

• A story proclaiming that overactive bladder may be the “next frontier” for Botox. It’s a story that interviews the drugmaker’s CEO but no medical expert. Botox doesn’t need any more free advertising from journalists. That’s an overactive disease that needs treatment.

• A story about a new “painless” test for prostate cancer. Unless it required catheterization, a urine test is usually painfree! This is hype. A competing story on the same study said the urine test may be better than a blood test – inaccurate, completely missing the gist of the research.

• A story on DHA omega-3 supplements to prevent babies’ colds in which even the lead researcher said the results were not dramatic. So why is this news? Coincidentally (or is it?) we reviewed another story on another claim for DHA last week. Look here to see how that second story was already used as a springboard for marketing by one company.

• A story delivering what it called an “Important health tip for the summer: Drink more wine! ” as protection against harmful sunburns. You might need a drink after reading how the story failed to evaluate the evidence. This is the kind of daily drumbeat of meaningless health news that turns people numb to the stuff that really matters.

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