4th annual year-ender on health care PR crap

Gary Schwitzer is Founder & Publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer.

I don’t think all public relations messages about health care are crap.  But most of what I see is. And I can’t stand seeing public relations that may end up hurting the public. The Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics talks about serving the public good…and “a special obligation to operate ethically.” Hmm.  Keep your own scorecard on that as you follow the examples below. That’s why I’m posting on this topic for the 4th straight year.

And I’m not alone in taking a year-end look at news release hype.

Biologist Michael Eisen blogged,Accepting nominations for the ‘Pressies’ recognizing the most overhyped science press releases of 2013.”

When you ask journalists for nominees, the ideas come pouring forth. For example, science journalist Emily Willingham wrote, “Don’t be duped by the duon DNA hype.”  Excerpt:

“The hype began with the way hype often begins: an institutional news release offering us the holy grail/huge breakthrough/game-changing finding of the day. This kind of exaggeration is the big reason any science consumer should look well beyond the news release in considering new findings. A news release is a marketing tool. You’re reading an advertisement when you read a news release. In this case, the advertisement/news release not only goes off the rails with the hype, it’s also scientifically garbled and open to all kinds of misinterpretation, as the comments at the link to the release make clear.”

One journalist wrote to me with a couple of gems:

  • Pigs & pomegranate: a news release promoting a pomegranate extract – a “BREAKTHROUGH IN VIVO STUDY FINDS FIRST DIRECT LINK BETWEEN ENRICHED POMEGRANATE JUICE CONSUMPTION AND HEART HEALTH.”  The vivo in question was pigs.  And not many of them (24) and not tested for very long (10 days).
  • If drinking urine isn’t your cup of tea: a PR pitch that read – “A 91-year old man has recently told his story of how he believes drinking his own urine has helped him reach the grand age of 91, but looks 10 years younger. Urine may not be everyone, so for that we have … the best quality, effective skincare products at affordable prices.   By no means do (we) promise you will reach the impressive age of 91 by using this product, however they do assure you will be left with soft, bright and smooth skin without considering the consumption of your own urine.”

So, with that, we’re off and running with the 2013 year-end look at just a small sample of the PR crap that this one little blogger observed over the past year.

News release-related stuff we wrote about this past year:

Now, here are some themes and buzzwords and products and claims that seem to pop up each year as we look back at the piles of PR pitches we receive:

  • “science-based”
  • “scientifically validated”
  • “all-natural”
  • “all natural botanical extracts”
  • Cocoa flavonoids – “they lower blood pressure, lower bad LDL, raise good HDL, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve blood flow and, in a long term study, lower the risk of heart disease.”
  • Antioxidants – “to neutralize free radicals”
  • CoQ10 – “one of the most important nutrients for your heart”
  • Eat canned tuna because it “contains tyrosine, a precursor to the energy-giving neurotransmitter dopamine.”
  • “the most powerful adaptogenic herbs—ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, and schisandra”
  • “a high concentration of key chlorogenic acids”
  • “Phytonutrient-Rich”
  • “Shea butter”
  • “low testosterone, memory loss and dementia…and headaches..and depression…in both men and women”
  • “I can share studies with you, product to test, connect you with experts on this topic, and I have great pictures (and B-Roll).”

Next, here are some more detailed examples of news releases or PR pitches.

Lipstick on a pig

News release:

“MNsure’s Board of Directors took action today to improve service for Minnesotans using the state’s health insurance exchange. The Board announced it has named (a new) Interim Chief Executive Officer while it conducts a national search for a permanent Chief Executive Officer. ….April Todd-Malmlov, Executive Director of MNsure, has stepped down.”

Reaction:  Nice spin.  Here’s what the Star Tribune reported:

“Embattled MNsure director resigns amid increasing criticism…The outrage over Todd-Malmlov intensified following revelations that she and state Medicaid director James Golden took a nearly two-week tropical vacation late last month, even as the program was swamped with problems.”

So let’s vote:

  • was the primary motivation to “improve service service for Minnesotans” (which could have been done earlier)?
  • or to save face after a terribly embarrassing personnel problem rife with bad judgment because it had now blown up in the news?

Riding the coattails (bra straps?) of other hot news stories – until the ride ended

News release:

“Making national news today is the newest twist on early detection of breast cancer; the breast-cancer detecting bra. Whether or not this technology actually works at detecting breast cancer, wouldn’t it be even better if there was a technology available today that would allow doctors to easily and inexpensively identify pre-cancerous cellular abnormalities in the breast as a means to identify high-risk women and potentially treat their condition in order to prevent the disease?

In fact, just such a test exists…. It’s called the ForeCYTE Breast Health Test, a new, FDA cleared test designed to identify women who are at high risk for breast cancer. (Think of this test as a Pap test for breast cancer.) The ForeCYTE test…provides personalized information about the 10-year and lifetime risk of breast cancer for women between ages 18 and 73. The simple, painless and inexpensive test involves collecting a specimen of nipple aspirate fluid.”

Followup:  That was February. The FDA says that later that same month, the agency “issued a warning letter to Atossa Genetics, Inc. that, among other things, informed the company that their test was misbranded in that its labeling was false or misleading. The agency asked the firm to take prompt action to correct the violations addressed in the warning letter. In October 2013, Atossa initiated a voluntary recall to remove the ForeCYTE Breast Health Test from the market.”  And in this December announcement, the FDA says “The bottom line is that women should not rely solely on these nipple aspirate tests for the screening or diagnosis of breast cancer.”


Such a sweetheart deal

News release:

A “longevity center and spa” announces – “Rather than booking an annual exam with a doctor this February, why not you and your sweetheart travel for your heart? We are offering a special Heart Health Package that includes an Echocardiogram, Carotid Ultrasound, updated blood panel and a consultation with a cardiologist, just for an additional program fee of $390 per person per week.”

Reaction:  Now THAT’s what I call romantic.  But what about the evidence for this special package?   Echocardiogram for what?  As a screening tool?  Not much evidence for that. Carotid ultrasound? The US Preventive Service Task Force says that duplex ultrasonagraphy “yields many false-positive results… some people with false-positive test results may receive unnecessary invasive carotid endarterectomy surgery.” In the end, is this the bargain you were looking for?



News release about Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) …and the fact that “independent laboratory tests have recently found (xyz product) to have an ORAC value of over 1,500,000 per 100 grams. This is great news.”

Reaction:  I can’t remember being so excited about ORAC news. Because the product I’ve been using only had an ORAC value of 1,000,000 per 100 grams.


The hook that didn’t hook:

News release: ‘The Doctors’ to Feature the Tru-D SmartUVC Hospital Disinfection Robot

Reaction:  Um, if I’m not already watching the show (I’m not), is this supposed to convince me to watch?


The fountain of youth routine is getting old

News release: “Intravenous vitamin therapy may be the new fountain of youth.”

Reaction:  In the news just this week – “The latest studies on vitamins have some medical experts saying ‘case closed’ — it’s time for most consumers to stop wasting money on multivitamins and other supplements, because they have no proven benefits and some possible harms.”


This little piggy went whee…whee…whee…make it stop!

News release: “40 million Americans have a secret they keep hidden: unsightly toenails. Confined to closed shoes even during warm weather, their little piggy’s never enjoy the freedom of walking barefoot on the beach, padding around in flip-flops or being comfortable exposing their feet at the gym or in certain “personal” situations. Now there is an easy solution for those who want to release those ugly toenails from captivity called Dr. Paul’s Piggy Paste.”


The Blood Detective wants your blood

News release: “Which blood tests are your doctors NOT running that hold critical clues to your well-being, mood and disease potential? Below are six essential blood tests that should be a part of your overall care according to (the doctor who calls himself) The Blood Detective.  His proprietary blood analysis helped one patient lose 65 pounds.”

Reaction:  How much of that weight loss was extracted from the patient’s wallet?


Stress relief

News release:  “55 percent of Americans reported stress during their everyday life, while 64 percent of Americans are stressed during a typical workday.”

Reaction:  More than 90 percent of journalists report stress dealing with an avalanche of such news releases every day.


Come back when you have data – more than an N of 1, at least

News release: “This morning St. Jude Medical announced the first patient implant in a new pivotal trial evaluating the company’s AMPLATZER™ Cardiac Plug (ACP) for the prevention of stroke. The ACP Trial is a prospective, randomized, multi-center clinical study with an adaptive trial design that will enroll no fewer than 400 and no more than 3,000 patients at up to 90 sites in the U.S. and Canada. The trial compares the safety and efficacy of the ACP device to traditional medical treatment using long-term, blood-thinning medication.”

Reaction:  First patient implant in a trial targeted for 400 – 3,000 patients?  I’ll wait, thanks


Trend this

News release:  Digestive enzymes are trending in the news.

Reaction:  I get heartburn, gas, bloating and indigestion from stories about “what’s trending in the news.”


Back off from the Bulldog

News release:  Is Bulldog-Face the Next Modern Epidemic?

A news story based on that release included this:

“Our faces are becoming more like a bulldog, with smaller mouths, bigger tongues, misaligned teeth and bigger necks – all of which changes the structures of our mouths and makes breathing significantly more difficult,” (the self-promoting dentist) says. The doctors say that’s creating a health crisis.”

Reaction from the Health News Watchdog: I’ll give you a health crisis if you insult my mouth, tongue, teeth and neck again.  This is a classy look.


Please feature our research

PR inquiry:  “Newly published research article on Acetaminophen’s affect on Autism, asthma, and AD(H)D. I want to see how we can go about getting this research featured.”

Reaction:  You’re barking up the wrong watchdog’s tree.


From Russia with love

PR inquiry, as written:  “Hello my name is Ivan, im PR manager  from (a company specializing in injectable human growth hormone). We have  PRESS RELEASE about our company, and we want you to plays our release in your site, of course we  are ready to pay for placement.”

Reaction:  Hey, Ivan, don’t you remember how Rocky IV ended?

Or, if by chance, this was a joke sent to me by Ivan Oransky, then my compliments on the humor.


My past year-enders:

2012: 3rd annual year-ender on health care PR crap we receive

2011: My 2nd annual year-ender: Health care PR stuff one blogger sees in a year

2010: Year-end review of health care PR puffery sent to journalists


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