5-Star Friday | Our staff pick some gems from the past month

A big part of what we do could be called “criticism.” It’s a long and proud tradition that is often misunderstood as solely focusing on the “negative.” Which is not the case. If you dig deep enough into the etymology of criticism you will find roots in such words as discriminating, deciding, and – yes – judgement. But in a “positive” sense it has always referred to making well-informed judgements and — ironically enough — that became one of the founding principles of science.

5 Star FridayIt’s interesting to bear in mind that both science and journalism are disciplines that are driven by constantly critiquing themselves.

So when we see bad science or bad journalism it’s an opportunity to learn. And when we see great examples of writing — like the stories we highlight below — it’s an opportunity to celebrate.

One of the fun parts of working with HealthNewsReview.org is that we have writers and reviewers from all sorts of backgrounds scattered all around North America. We come from a variety of backgrounds: physicians, ethicists, researchers, nutritionists, and journalists of every flavor imaginable.

But we don’t always get to work together as much as we’d like, so we thought it would be fun to write a piece together. Five star Friday gives us that chance. After all, each of us is combing through dozens of articles each week. So three of us — Kathlyn Stone, Kevin Lomangino and Michael Joyce — have each picked a favorite article from the past month. We think you’ll enjoy them as well.

Michael Joyce | Multimedia Producer | with HealthNewsReview.org for 3 months

Those Indecipherable Medical Bills? They’re One Reason Health Care Costs So Much • by Elisabeth Rosenthal • New York Times Magazine

Michael Joyce

I have yet to meet a doctor, nurse, or patient who knows how to decipher a hospital bill. Yet most people who buy a car can tell you exactly what they got for their money.

That’s why this provocative investigative piece by veteran journalist, Elisabeth Rosenthal, is a must-read. Sure, drug prices and high tech medicine have a lot to do with the $3 trillion health care bill in this country, but she rightly reminds us this is “aided and abetted” by an overly complex and nontransparent billing and coding system that is both inefficient and inaccessible. The end result?

“A gigantic new industry of consultants, armies of back-room experts whom medical providers and insurance companies deploy against each other in an endless war over which medical procedures were undertaken and how much to pay for them. Caught in the crossfire are Americans like [patient] Wanda Wickizer, left with huge bills and indecipherable explanations in languages they cannot possibly understand.”

Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor | with HealthNewsReview.org since 2009

No, We Can’t Say Whether Cancer Is Mostly Bad Luck • by Ed Yong • The Atlantic

Kevin Lomangino

Ed Yong’s excellent deep dive into Round 2 of the “Cancer is bad luck” story resonated with me for a few reasons. First, he pointed out that the media firestorm that erupted from these studies hinges on the choice of two words: “bad luck.”

That framing turned a completely uncontroversial finding into one that generated global headlines – most of them quite misleading. Every day we see the same thing — pedestrian studies that get spun with provocative framing that generates both clicks and reader confusion. I also loved Yong’s perceptive take-home about our ability to communicate about cancer.

“Ultimately, this story reveals less about why people do or don’t get cancers, and more about how hard it is to talk or think about these diseases.”

Kathlyn Stone | Associate Editor | with HealthNewsReview.org since 2015

Vitamin E and Selenium Fail to Prevent Alzheimer’s • by Nicholas Bakalar • The New York Times

This short article by Nicholas Bakalar drew my attention not because it’s hot news or a deep dive into a major medical controversy, but because it’s an angle health news watchers don’t see reported nearly enough – negative study findings.

Kathlyn Stone

Of course it’s not good news that long-term trials haven’t shown any benefit in taking vitamin E and selenium to prevent Alzheimer’s. If evidence was found that a simple, inexpensive supplement could reduce Alzheimer’s risk it would have huge implications for individuals, the supplement industry and the entire health care system.

But it is good to see negative study results being reported so that people can focus instead on other things that potentially do help reduce risk for Alzheimer’s. Things like consistent exercise, healthy diet, intellectual stimulation and other lifestyle modifications.

The article captures the gist of the research in a tidy middle paragraph and closes by leaving the door open the tiniest crack to continued research into these supplements, “We could have picked the wrong version or the wrong dose,” Bakalar quotes the lead author as saying. The last sentence captures the researcher admitting the research they’d begun in 2002 just hasn’t panned out. “But there’s really no evidence that these supplements will make a difference down the road in preventing dementia.” Now that’s closure.

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