5-Star Friday: Smarter PSA testing, science’s Lake Wobegon effect, lifesaving coffee, and more

5-starsIn what will be our last 5-Star Friday celebrating quality journalism in 2015, we take a look back at recently reviewed stories and news releases that have set a high standard for excellence and earned 5-star ratings from our reviewers.

This HealthDay story, “Breast-feeding linked to reduced risk of preemie eye problem,” by Kathleen Doheny, is a great example of the balance that we look for in health news stories. Our reviewers said it gave readers a clear view of the big picture on a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. Review excerpt: “The article shows a good grasp of the evidence quality by reporting some of the limitations of the study, including the limitation that the study looked only at a mother’s own breast milk, not donor milk.”

With yet another observational study touting the possible lifesaving benefits of coffee, our reviewers praised Sharon Begley’s Stat piece, “Will drinking coffee extend your life?” for bringing a cupful of sanity to the discussion. Review excerpt: “The great strengths of the story include links to notable previous studies that explain the confusing ‘backstory’ of the coffee consumption/health risk debate among researchers and consumers, along with one of the best definitions of the limitations of observational studies this reviewer has read in a news article.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s  “Panic disorder treatment could be breath of fresh air,” by Stacey Burling, looked at a new, unproven anti-anxiety device from multiple angles, reviewers said. Review excerpt: “Nearly across the board the story covers the important bases. Costs, availability, alternatives, the quality of the evidence, what independent experts think.”

Notable recent 4-star stories and news releases include the following:

HealthDay: Marijuana oil and epilepsy: HealthDay underscores perils of uncontrolled, unblinded studies

Washington Post: omen with Stage 4 breast cancer survive longer if they have surgery, study shows

Joslin Diabetes Center: Lucentis Proves Effective Against Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

European College of Neuropsychopharmacology: Magnetic stimulation of the brain may help patients with cocaine addiction

Stories we didn’t review, but which deserve your attention, include:

John Fauber’s investigation in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel“FDA repeatedly approved cancer drug Afinitor without proof it extended life,” which reports that while this cancer drug is expensive and has a long list of nasty side effects, it doesn’t seem to help people live any longer.

Marie McCullough’s smart piece about prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening in the Philadelphia Inquirer“More with early-stage prostate cancers choosing to wait and see before surgery,” shines a light on an alternative approach to prostate cancer management that’s gaining traction among urologists and patients. Called active surveillance, it’s a way to avoid overtreatment of cancers that might never pose a problem. “Postponing therapy to see whether cancer progresses – a strategy once portrayed as nerve-racking and foolhardy – is now seen as a key to using the PSA test more strategically,” she writes.

Over at Retraction Watch, a post headlined  “Do science findings feel more novel, robust? They are – at least, in language,”  reports on a BMJ study that found a whopping 880% increase in the use of positive terms such as “robust,” “novel,” and “innovative” in science abstracts since 1974. Calling it the scientific version of the “Lake Wobegon effect,” RW reported that “Most likely, authors are marketing their findings as a result of the intense pressure scientists feel to publish papers, and the value journals place on positive findings.”

Charles Piller’s deep dive into reporting on clinical trials at Stat, “Law ignored, patients at risk,”  informs us that top research institutions regularly fail to post results of studies for which they receive federal funding. “The violations have left gaping holes in a federal database used by millions of patients, their relatives, and medical professionals, often to compare the effectiveness and side effects of treatments for deadly diseases such as advanced breast cancer,” Piller writes.

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