5-Star Friday: Emotions vs. evidence

Michael Joyce produces multimedia for HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Every day we scrutinize media messages about health on this website.

We encounter evidence — presumed by many to be logical and impartial — that is packaged, spun, and even altered by forces such as investors, egos, politics, and career concerns. Claims and promises are made. Often with much fanfare.

Enter emotions.

Those most affected by the evidence — hoping it will address the frustration, pain, anger, vulnerability, confusion or other emotions they feel — are often crushed when these promises are not kept. Not infrequently, the highly touted treatments either don’t work as promised, or are actually harmful.

Good reporters — like the ones featured below — understand this. They not only scrutinize the evidence, but recognize it is inextricably linked to human emotions and lives.


Failure to Warn: Hundreds died while taking an arthritis drug, but nobody alerted patients • by Charles Piller (Part Two by Sheila Kaplan) • STAT

This is a must-read if you believe — or doubt — that our health care culture is increasingly medication-driven. It’s a two-part investigative series that’s meticulously researched.

In part one, Charles Piller paints a chilling portrait of the “approve-first, monitor-later” pressure placed on the FDA drug approval process. It’s made clear our drug pipeline is large bore and greased with financial incentives. In the words of Dr. Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University: “The system is broken, and all the financial incentives are lined up to keep it broken.” The consequences portrayed are staggering.

In part two, Sheila Kaplan takes a closer look at the FDA Sentinel System. This decade-old program was designed to scrutinize the safety of drugs after they’ve already been approved. Kaplan describes an expensive system that was heralded as “a quantum leap forward” but has only been used to revise the warning labels of two drugs … not a great return on over $200 million in development costs.


How the FDA Approved a $300,000-a-year Drug It’s Own Experts Didn’t Believe Worked • by Susan Pulliam & Brody Mullins • The Wall Street Journal

We all know emotions can trump logic. But can they trump the FDA?

This investigative piece clearly illustrates just how powerful a tool patient anecdotes have become for patient advocacy groups. Fortunately, we’ve noticed an increasing number of well-written articles like this one taking a critical look at the potential conflicts of interest, far-reaching influence, and manipulative strategies of some (not all) patient advocacy groups.

Apparently, emotions can do more than sway the FDA … they can also raise stock prices.


The Weight Loss Trap: Why Your Diet Isn’t Working • by Alexandra Sifferlin • Time Health

Employing balanced anecdotes, powerful statistics, interesting history, and an incredible mix of quality sources, this highly readable article is one of the most cogent takes on one of the hottest news topics of our time.

The chewy center here is an elusive question: why do dieting results vary so much from person to person? Sifferlin wisely provides no answer, but let’s us know where scientists are looking for that answer.

It seems the quality of writing about weight loss goes up and down like the diet fads themselves. This informative read is evidence-based and rock solid.


All These Cancer Screenings Probably Won’t Save Your Life • by Paul A. Offit • The Daily Beast

Anyone who cares about rampant overdiagnosis and overtreatment in this country ought to read this article, if only to become familiar with Dr. Gilbert Welch’s barnyard analogy for understanding cancer screening.

Or, at the very least, if you want to feel better equipped to understand and clearly discuss the pros and cons of screening for thyroid, breast, and prostate cancers.

Dr. Offit is a pediatrician and an author. He makes the case against over-screening so clearly, I can only imagine how convincing he is when telling kids to stop drinking soda and start eating vegetables.


Cannabidiol slashes seizures in kids with rare epilepsy, study finds • by Susan Scutti • CNN

We felt the hyped headline didn’t do the excellent writing by Susan Scutti justice.

Scutti used a variety of sources to provide important context about a very small study focused on a very rare type of epilepsy.

There are two virtual certainties when it comes to marijuana-derived therapies. First, stories about them are sure click-bait. Second, we don’t have enough high quality studies on therapeutic cannabis yet, to make many definitive conclusions.

That makes detailed writing like this all the more commendable.


Neurofeedback Could Fight Depression – Or Just Empty Your Wallet •  by Peter Andrey Smith • Bloomberg

To make it very clear … that a very expensive treatment … might not do very much at all … is very important.

This is particularly true when applied to a disease like depression where those affected are hungry for hope, and a multi-million dollar industry — like the burgeoning neurofeedback industry — is hungry for new clients.

Just because it sounds scientific, doesn’t mean it’s based in science.


Roche’s Pricey New Breast Cancer Combo Barely Beats Old Drug • by Naomi Kresge & Michelle Cortez • Bloomberg

breast cancerMore is better is an easy trap for all of us to fall into. But reporters Kresge and Cortez avoid this trap and let the evidence speak.

We gave them high marks for accurately “reporting the costs, harms and perhaps negligible benefit of the new treatment which combines a newer drug (Perjeta) with an older drug (Herceptin).”

As we reported in our ASCO coverage of this combination therapy, monitoring relapse rates and side effects will be critical in following up on this ongoing research.


5-star Friday is a regular feature on HealthNewsReview.org. You can find a list of previous installments HERE.

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