Journalists love superlative terms for cancer drugs – often questionably

The Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research” is the title of an article in the journal JAMA Oncology this week, co-authored by Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH and medical student Matthew V. Abola. The topic should ring familiar with anyone who has followed for any period of time.

They write:

“Whereas most new cancer drugs afford modest benefits, approved drugs or those in develop-ment may be heralded as “game changers” or “breakthroughs” in the lay press. These news articles may be important sources of information to patients, the public, and investors—with a broader reach than medical journal articles. However, omission of medical context or use of inflated descriptors may lead to misunderstandings among readers.”

So they looked for 10 superlative terms used in reference to cancer drugs in a Google news search over just 5 days’ time this past June.  They found 94 news articles from 66 different news organizations that made 97 superlative mentions referring to 36 specific drugs.  The 10 terms were:

  • breakthrough
  • game changer
  • miracle
  • cure
  • home run
  • revolutionary
  • transformative
  • life saver
  • groundbreaking
  • marvel

Half of the drugs described had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. For 5 of 36 (14%) drugs, superlatives were used in the absence of clinical data (ie, based solely on mouse, cell culture, and/or preclinical work).

And who used the superlative terms? 55% of the time it was journalists, followed by physicians (27%), industry experts (9%), patients (8%) and one member of Congress.

None of this is surprising to us, as we’ve scrutinized health care journalism for decades.  In fact, our 15-year old article, “7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News,” included three of the terms used in this new analysis.  And our work goes far beyond a five-day sample of news stories – with 10 years of examples recorded on our website.  (I will admit:  It’s curious to me that our work wasn’t cited in this article.)

So, if you want breakthroughs, search for uses on our site.

We’ve called for a ban on the grating term, game-changer.

Miracle-iStock_000048284838_-350x218Miracle?  Yep, we’ve got ’em:  Enbrel, Acomplia, Gleevec, Dimebon, avocado, Lupron and on and on and on….

What’s the big deal about cures?  Dime a dozen if you follow news coverage over time.

lifesaverWe’ve collected more lifesavers than a kid in a candy store.

We shatter the Richter scale with the number of groundbreaking stories we’ve reviewed.

Words matter.  Framing matters.  Hype causes harm.  Let the evidence speak for itself.  Good evidence doesn’t need sugar-coating with superlatives.


Here is some coverage of the study from other outlets:

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Comments (4)

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October 29, 2015 at 10:44 am

Written by Dr. Prasad and a medical student? Why not give the student’s name?

    Kevin Lomangino

    October 29, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Good point. I added it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor

Paul Alper

November 2, 2015 at 7:57 am

Prasad is the co-author of a 2015 book, “Ending Medical Reversals; Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives.” Be sure to review it because it contains a discussion of why many procedures which are plausibly put forward as beneficial, however, turn it to be useless or harmful .

Alia Bucciarelli

November 2, 2015 at 8:07 am

Thanks for bringing this article to my attention! We just covered using superlatives last week in the class that I teach on writing about health and medicine. I’m going to share this post with my students for additional context.