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NanoKnife fight at the University of Louisville: Why a disputed news release reflects important truths about health care news

A few weeks ago, we posted a review of a university news release about a potential new treatment for pancreatic cancer called the NanoKnife. Our reviewers gave the release two stars and flagged some major problems in their Review Summary:

“A futuristic-sounding medical treatment is paired with a bold claim of survival benefit in this news release. But the release is missing basic information to back up the headline’s claims and put the treatment’s efficacy into perspective. And an important conflict of interest is not disclosed. Such omissions could help instill false hope in sufferers of pancreatic cancer and their families.”

Our evaluation was tough but thorough, in my view, and so I was surprised to receive an email complaining of an inaccuracy in the review almost immediately.

“This is not my news release and the news is not issued from the University of Louisville Health Sciences Center,” said Associate Director of Communications at the University of Louisville, Jill Scoggins, who was one of two media contacts listed on the release. “Please remove the header with the U of L logo and name from your website.”

Confused, I went back to the original release to see how we could have gotten that basic information wrong. But I saw no reason why we shouldn’t have identified the University of Louisville as the release’s source.

After all, the release begins, “University of Louisville announces…” and ends with a footnote that reads “SOURCE: University of Louisville.”

But Scoggins was adamant. In a comment on the review itself, she added, “Our researcher is quoted in the news release but the source of the news is the agency working with the company being cited.”

nanoknife grabThe agency she is talking about is MCS Healthcare Public Relations. And while no specific company was actually cited in the release, Angiodynamics makes the NanoKnife device that the release discusses in favorable terms.

I thought it was unusual that a university would disavow itself of a statement put out by one of its researchers. It also seemed inappropriate for a commercial company to issue a news release written so as to appear to come from a university (as Scoggins’ comments suggested had happened). And so I called (twice) and emailed Scoggins to learn more about the situation.

She didn’t respond.

So I went to MCS Healthcare Public Relations and spoke briefly to Heather Kerr, a media contact also listed on the release. She told me that MCS worked directly with the principal investigator on the study, Robert Martin, MD, PhD, and were paid by a grant from the University of Louisville. A follow-up call from Joe Boyd, CEO of MCS, yielded details that seemed to further clarify the situation.

Joe Boyd, CEO of MCSPR

Joe Boyd, CEO of MCSPR

“We wrote the release and submitted it to the PI [principal investigator Robert Martin], who was supposed to clear it with Jill Scoggins. Jill said it didn’t happen. He didn’t follow the process as far as I know.”

Boyd added: “We authored it for him. What he did with it, I don’t know.”

So a picture began forming in my mind of a Louisville researcher “going rogue,” as it were. Someone who wanted total control over the release content, perhaps so he could apply his own narrative to the results. Someone willing to take matters into his own hands to avoid any meddling from the university press office.

But that emerging picture began to get cloudy when I emailed Martin and asked him for his own take on the situation.

“Jill was notified AND sent the release,” Martin wrote back, refuting Boyd’s statement that the release wasn’t “cleared” by Scoggins. “I have left multiple messages, but have not spoken to her. It may be that she has taken issue of you using the logo.” Martin also told me that Angiodynamics was not involved in the editing of the release, though he didn’t directly address a question about who funded the development of release. (I had asked whether Angiodynamices was involved in the “sponsoring or editing” of the release, and he addressed only the “editing” part.)

To be clear, I have no way of knowing what really happened in this situation or whether the release should, in fact, be considered an official product of the University of Louisville.

Robert Martin, MD, PhD

Robert Martin, MD, PhD

Martin is a professor at the university in addition to being a paid consultant to Angiodynamics (a relationship not mentioned in the news release). His comments suggest that he “cleared” the release with Scoggins prior to its issuance. Scoggins’s comments suggest otherwise.

Scoggins has my sympathy if she’s being unfairly portrayed, or if our review erroneously associates her with a document that she didn’t have a meaningful opportunity to contribute to. But if she was going to call us out for being wrong, she should at least have made the effort to explain to us what actually happened.

In any case, all of that is probably beside the point as far as HealthNewsReview.org is concerned. We’re interested in how news gets made and reported, and I think this is a very instructive example.

We often talk about how there are many players who have an opportunity to influence the health news stream — they can help keep that stream running clear or they can pollute it with spin and misinformation.

Here we see that dynamic in action at the news stream’s very headwaters, a place where researchers, private companies, and public information officers all compete for influence over how this news will emerge and be presented to the world.

And as we see in this case, such competition is sometimes fierce — so fierce as to cause a rupture in professional relationships and a total breakdown in communication.

Earle Holland, veteran PIO and reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org, told me it’s not unheard of for a researcher to hire his or her own public relations firm without the knowledge of the university’s communications people. (Again, we haven’t established that that’s what happened here.) He said this is most likely to happen when the communications people refuse a researcher’s request for something and the researcher feels compelled to take action on his or her own.

“In my experience, medical centers are much more likely to have this kind of rogue behavior, since the communications folks there tend to have less autonomous decision-making authority than perhaps within the larger university. Physicians at med centers generally have the final say and usually win if there is a disagreement with the communications office.”

Holland added that for reporters, seeing a release that lists both a public relations agency contact and a university contact should trigger a cautious response. It suggests that there may be an ‘end run’ being attempted around the university communications staff.

“Agencies are beholden only to their clients — that’s how they get paid. The staff of a public institution — including physician/researchers — have a strong obligation to the public to provide fair and clear information about the discoveries they make. Anything less is a breach of the commitment the institution has made to deserve the public funding it enjoys.”

I also reached out to A’ndrea Elyse Messer, PhD, who is Senior Science & Research Information Officer at Penn State University, for her take on the situation. She responded by describing her own experience refusing to promote a so-called “new discovery” that she had grave concerns about from a Penn State materials scientist.

“One reason I said ‘no’ was because the research was tied to a commercial venture in which [the researcher] had sizable equity. It was also not peer reviewed and this wasn’t all that long after cold fusion. I also didn’t think his ‘discovery’ was all that new.”

The researcher did not take no for an answer, and went ahead with his own private plans to promote the research in a press conference held in Washington, D.C. Messer later learned that a new reporter for the Wall Street Journal had fallen prey to the researcher’s unsupported hype.

“[The reporter] attended, covered the press conference and wrote a story, which was promptly questioned by the company that had already begun commercializing this ‘new discovery’ some time before. The WSJ reporter had to write a retraction story for one of his first stories for the paper. The fallout for us was minimal. We simply explained that faculty had the right to say whatever they wanted, and that his remarks were not sanctioned by the university.”

To the broader public, it may seem as if health news coming out of a university is about the dispassionate communication of scientific truth. But as these examples may illustrate, the way that research gets communicated may also be impacted by egos, money, and control struggles — just like with any other human endeavor.

Remember that the next time you decide to dip a toe into the health news stream.

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Comments (3)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Michael Sheehan

May 20, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Great investigative article. Worthy of a Pulirzer.

Clinton Colmenares

May 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm

I’ve witnessed these end-arounds all too often. Having been a director at three AMCs, I’ve experienced this more often when leadership does not value communications. Without strong support from leadership, PR people have no authority. I’ve gone head-to-head with department administrators who had financial interests in letting vendors release their own news. It’s irresponsible science, misleading to patients and dangerous to an institution’s integrity. More importantly, as institutions move toward integrated marketing, there is a risk of losing the watchdog role media relations has traditionally performed. And with fewer journalists, there will be fewer media relations pros with solid news experience. Lesson: Institutions need to devote more efforts to policing news and installing journalistic standards into marketing efforts, not the other way around.

Laura Henze Russell

May 26, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Nice article, very astute. There is more money flowing through the health news stream these days than ever, seems to be torrent after torrent of sponsored content. Wonder why people don’t trust government, pharma, and public health authorities these days? They are all into sponsored content, and slick PR campaigns. U.S. health industries are in a Permanent Campaign, and the public is tired of being spun, assaulted, disrespected, harmed, and ignored.