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5-star Friday: It’s the little things that can make for great health care journalism

5-Star FridayWe often cover big topics. Things like health care reform, the drug industry, and conflicts of interest, to name a few.

But frequently we find big stories in things that, at first glance, seem minor and trivial, but clearly are not.

Several of the 5-star stories we selected below serve as an important reminder that with health care news there’s usually a ripple effect — no matter how small the topic may seem — that eventually finds a way to impact us or someone we know.


Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

Jill U. Adams

Dark chocolate is now a health food. Here’s how that happened. • Julia Belluz • Vox

An incisive look into industry money tilting the scales to make a food product — in this case, chocolate — appear healthy. Mars Inc. created a publication bias by producing lots of studies over the past decade, which overwhelmingly report health benefits of cocoa. The company sure seems to be getting a good return on their investment — chocolate sales keep growing. 

The piece opens with a description of a new Cadbury product:

Cadbury Jr.’s newest confection loaded just about every buzzy health trend into a fresh green-and-white package: vegan, ethically sourced, organic dark chocolate and creamy, superfood avocado. The company promised to deliver the nutrition of avocados — in a chocolate bar. Journalists were dazzled.

Indeed, health news outlets play a role:

The resulting cocoa and chocolate studies are catnip for journalists, who often write about them under headlines like “Good news for chocolate lovers: The more you eat, the lower your risk of heart disease,” or simply “Chocolate is good for you.”

All this, and yet:

But despite the industry effort to date, cocoa still has never been proven to carry any long-term health benefits. And when it’s delivered with a big dose of fat and sugar, any potential health perks are very quickly outweighed by chocolate’s potential harm to the waistline.

[Case in point, here is what happens when you search “chocolate” on our site.]


Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

Kevin Lomangino

The little red pill being pushed on the elderly • Blake Ellis, Melanie Hicken, Sergio Hernandez • CNN

Pharmaceutical companies project a public image that is all about “cures.” But behind closed doors at one company the emphasis was squarely on growing sales, CNN reports — even if that meant pushing its “little red pill” to dementia patients who weren’t good candidates for treatment.

Digging deep into prescribing data, the federal open payments database, and FDA adverse event reports, CNN shows how Avanir hawked its drug Nudexta, costing $12.60 a pill, through doctors on its payroll who over-prescribed the drug to frail nursing home residents. The predictable result: ballooning prescription drug costs and hundreds of reports of patients seriously harmed and possibly killed due to inappropriate prescribing.

By the way, nursing homes aren’t the only place Avanir is aggressively pushing Nudexta. As we’ve reported previously, the company is also using questionable tactics to medicalize normal emotions and turn more of the general public into patients.


Joy Victory | Deputy Managing Editor

Drug Companies Make Eyedrops Too Big, And You Pay For The Waste • by Marshall Allen • ProPublica

As someone who developed a painful allergy to contact lenses (yes, it’s possible), I’m no stranger to the hassle of eyedrops. Luckily, I’ve only needed them to ease symptoms–never for problems that threatened my vision, such as glaucoma. Still, it was with a hearty nod that I read ProPublica’s exploration of eyedrop waste. I remember gathering a box of tissues anytime I needed to use drops–because more often than not, most of the medicine would roll down my cheeks, no matter how hard I tried. Through it all, I thought it was user error. (I eventually got LASIK.)

As it turns out, nope, it was intentional, reporter Marshall Allen uncovered. Although effective and less wasteful “micro-drop” technology exists, it was shelved by pharma companies disinterested in losing the profits they reap via all the product running down people’s faces. Eyedrops may seem like minor stuff compared to say, chemo drugs, but we’re talking about a $3.4 billion market for often vision-saving medicine.

Bravo to ProPublica for finding yet another stunning example of waste in healthcare.


Michael Joyce | Multimedia Producer

How our Smartphones Stop us from Living in the Moment • by Joelle Renstrom • Aeon

Michael Joyce

Pivoting away from health care interventions (and “health” foods like chocolate), let’s turn to an interesting study.

A Boston University writer and teacher experimented on her class of thirty (yes, n=30), trying to find ways to keep cell phones from disrupting her lectures.

Although the numbers she presents may not be statistically significant, the questions raised most certainly are. They form the basis of an emerging area of study with significant health ramifications at both the individual and public health level.

Over the next several years readers and writers of health care journalism will be faced with a wave of studies — most likely ranging from the psychological dimensions of distraction, to the neurochemical markers of addiction — and communicating the quality of that evidence will be a challenge, indeed.

Believe me, if they haven’t already, these studies are coming soon to a cell phone near you.

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