‘OK to wait’ or ‘Delay at your own risk?’ Headspinning headlines on same colonoscopy study

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

Headline messages about new studies often present conflicting–even polar opposite–takeaway messages about the research.

Consider these clashing messages out yesterday from HealthDay and Reuters Health about the same study:

If you drill down into each story you’ll find basically the same description of the results: Waiting up to 10 months after a positive stool test was not associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Waiting 10 to 12 months was associated with a roughly 50% increase in the risk of colon cancer–diagnosed at a rate of 49 cases per 1,000 tests, according to Reuters Health.

Which headline best captured the findings?

I think it’s fairly obvious that you shouldn’t wait more than 10 months to follow up on a test showing you might have cancer. And I think for most people, the reaction to a positive test would be worry bordering on alarm. So I favor ReutersHealth’s reassuring message that suggests you don’t need to panic after a positive test.

Well-meaning stories that stoke fear may paradoxically make us sicker.

Then again, I don’t think there’s any way to declare either headline unequivocally right or wrong. For the procrastinators among us, maybe it’s important to be reminded that 10 months is, in fact, too long for a follow-up colonoscopy after hearing that you screened positive for possible colon cancer.

The point is that headspinning headlines are a regular feature of the health news landscape these days — whether it’s vitamin D and cancer or the health effects of coffee.

And although we offer tips to help journalists do a better job with their headlines, it’s foolish to count yourself among the 6 in 10 Americans who don’t dig any deeper.

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