This blog took a back-seat this week to the re-launch of our systematic, criteria-driven news story reviews.  But here’s come catch-up:

  • While I’m mentioning the Post, I just want to remind readers of a periodic column by Linda Searing called “Quick Study.”  This week, the column addressed what many other journalists jumped on – a study about electronic devices interfering with sleep – like “Don’t read your iPad in bed.”   There’s a lot to like about the Quick Study approach:
  • They’re short and succinct.  This one was written with fewer than 400 words.
  • But the template used to review study news hits some important high points:
    • What’s the question?
    • Who may be affected?
    • Caveats
    • Where to find this study
    • Where to learn more about this topic

Now that’s a user-friendly outline. Unfortunately, for online visitors, finding Quick Study may not be a quick study.  I can’t find it on the online Health & Science page. If you search online for “Washington Post Quick Study,” you’re likely to get old results from 2005.  One tip:  If you go to the Post’s website and search for “Linda Searing Quick Study” in the Post’s own search box at the top, you’ll come up with reasonable results. Such a good column shouldn’t be so hard to find.

  • When I was in Australia last year, I met Drs. Tammy Hoffman and Chris Del Mar (and other colleagues at Bond University).  Now they have an important paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine, entitled, “Patients’ Expectations of the Benefits and Harms of Treatments, Screening, and Tests.”  Excerpt:  “The majority of participants overestimated intervention benefit and underestimated harm. Clinicians should discuss accurate and balanced information about intervention benefits and harms with patients, providing the opportunity to develop realistic expectations and make informed decisions.”
  • When we reviewed/compared 4 different stories on a study about avocados and cholesterol/heart health by Bloomberg, NBCNews.com, NPR.org, and Medical News Today ….. one thing that stood about all 4 was that none turned to an independent perspective.  We only heard from one of the researchers. One of the stories apparently didn’t even interview the researcher, but lifted quotes from her from a news release.  That is not the best way to report on health/medicine/science.
  • This often happens with health business stories, and a blatant example appeared in the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis. A new device scopes out cancer in the lungs” was the headline of a business piece about a local company’s product. There was no truly conflict-free independent perspective in the story, but there were three paragraphs of quotes from company execs.
  • I never got around to writing about what was perhaps the most widely reported health/medical/science story of the past 10 days – the one about bad luck being blamed for 2/3 of cancer cases.”  Many others offered thorough analyses.  Just a few examples out of many:
      • David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog: “Unfortunately, much of the mainstream press coverage presented the message of the paper a bit too simplistically. Even more unfortunately, it was the authors who encouraged this, as did the Johns Hopkins University press release about the study.”
      • The Independent: “However, experts have already questioned how significant the findings are – and said it certainly is not time to throw caution to the wind.”
      • Bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles, who has joined our editorial team, tried to think about this study and the news coverage from a patient’s perspective.  He wrote to me:
        • “There are several problems here. First, when patients hear a diagnosis of cancer, they hear death or disability.  Incidence is not the same thing.
          Death and disability can be modified, regardless of incidence by proper screening. The researcher, journal, or a journalist should not assume that the public gets this.
          Furthermore, the frequency of mutation (and thus the incidence of cancer) can be modified by environmental factors.  The best known is what the paper calls the bad luck lung cancer in non smokers.  About 9% of these are due to radon exposure in the home.  A number of the other cancers are also complex: alcohol and esphageal cancer, sun exposure as causing mutations and possibly increasing the risk of melanoma.”

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