Let’s take a brief spin through the choices that news consumers (and patients) can make among a range of stories about a new study on ovarian cancer screening.
Should the emphasis be:
“We need to follow up to confirm that this is absolutely significant throughout,” said Dr. Usha Menon, an author of the Lancet article and head of the gynecological cancer center at University College London. She said, “This is almost there, but not yet.” Her reason for caution was that the study passed only two of three tests of statistical significance, which means that the apparent benefits of screening might have been due to chance. She said a few more years of monitoring the participants would resolve that question.
“At first blush, it seemed that screening failed again: women receiving CA-125 plus ultrasound had a 15 percent lower risk of dying from ovarian cancer than unscreened women from 2001 through 2014 — 29 percent versus 34 percent. But the benefit was so small it could have been due to chance. That is, it was not statistically significant. But digging deeper turned up something more encouraging.”
And then there was this headline – different than all the others: “Ovarian Cancer Screening Study Falls Short: Significant mortality benefit only in subgroup analysis.” That was the MedPage Today story. Headlines matter. They lure us in and set us up for what’s to follow. And this headline hit harder than any other that we saw.
It also matters whom you choose to interview in the body of the story. MedPage Today’s first expert quote was more skeptical than those that appeared first in most other stories:
“The results will do little to inform the debate on screening average-risk women, said Don Dizon, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and a clinical expert for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“I’m underwhelmed by the results,” Dizon told MedPage Today. “I think the summary of the study that was distributed in advance was a bit misleading. It’s a hopeful study, regarding the benefits of screening, but the picture is still incomplete. If anything, it should spur on research, but it is by no means a green light to start screening the general population.”
What I’ve just outlined is part of the roulette that we play every day in perusing health care news. Where will the ball land? Which news story will you happen to see? And how will its framing compare with everything else out there? And while it’s not a game – not when people may make choices based on what they read in the news – the roulette analogy does hold up if people do actually make choices based on what they read in the news.
Back to the CBS story at the top. Its first line was: “A simple blood test for ovarian cancer can save women’s lives.” I always say: whenever you hear someone say “simple blood test,” run for the hills because there’s no such thing. That should be clear by now.