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Trends in health care news releases that lead to public confusion

Confused Asian business womanThis past week provided plenty of examples of why we think it’s important to review health care news releases. Since our news release review service debuted in April we’ve reviewed 83 such releases and we hope to hit 100 by year’s end. Just one week’s worth of these reviews highlighted four distinct problems in news releases that often get repeated in subsequent news coverage:

3-star reviews:

2-star reviews:

  • An Orlando Health news release – “Concussions in kids are detectable by blood test.” This release used one of the terms we dislike the most: “simple blood test.”  We caution readers: whenever you hear that term, run for the hills because it’s probably not that simple.

1-star review

  • A release from the American Massage Therapy Association – “Massage Therapy May Boost Immune System to Combat Cold, Flu.” There was so much wrong with this release.  Three dated studies were cited to tout a stronger immune system through massage therapy but the sweeping, general language wasn’t backed by evidence. Nor did the studies cited relate to seasonal colds and flu. Consequently, the reader may gain an erroneous notion of the benefits of massage therapy and its effects on the immune system.

And if we looked beyond last week, we’d see a number of other recurring patterns and themes in news releases that perpetuate public confusion about health care.

Some examples:

  1. News releases can’t seem to resist highlighting subgroup analyses without explaining what these are or emphasizing that they need to be treated very cautiously.
  2. Releases often focus on tiny, short-term “proof of concept” studies and miss the bigger picture.
  3. In several cases, public relations officials have written to us privately to say, “But the researchers signed off on what we wrote!” To which we reply: “That’s not good enough.”  First, most investigators would probably love to see their work framed in the most positive light, so their sign-off is hardly proof of accuracy, balance and completeness.  Second, overstatement of the evidence is never acceptable, no matter its source.

But we’ve also had many terrific interactions with press officers who’ve been open to our constructive criticism and eager to engage us in improving health care messages. Here are  just a few examples of what we’ve heard privately from these professionals.

  • “Your review was spot on. But I’m biased, because the story is a reprint of my news release. So, unfortunately, the story earns one more red “x” in the “relies on news releases” category. Keep up the good work. You are the voices of integrity and reason in science writing, and I use your criteria as my own checklist to avoid communications fatalities.”
  • “Seeking permission to use your criteria for patient education talk. I’m going to use your review of a news release as an example – I am one of the co-investigators (of the research that was the subject of the news release). It may get me fired or severely chastised.”
  • “I knew this research would get some headlines that were over the top and flat wrong.  Indeed that happened.  I wanted to make sure that we communicated a responsible message and in fact, consulted your website for a “check list” of points I needed to make. So thank you for being a strong resource.  I’m glad the release received a positive review and I gladly accept the criticism.”

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