5-Star Friday: Standing up and taking notice

Many of the journalists we know take pride in two things.

First, that their writing might help the public to think and talk about issues that have the potential to improve lives.

Second, that they stand up, take notice, and find stories where others may not.

Several of the 5-star stories we selected below are excellent examples of stories hiding in plain sight. They tackle issues that clearly need to be discussed, and we’re happy to highlight them here.

Gary Schwitzer | Publisher & Founder

How flawed science helped turn chocolate into a health food • by Julia Belluz • Vox.com

Gary Schwitzer

In our daily, non-stop review of health care news claims, we’ve seen promotion of chocolate as a superfood. Chocolate to prevent diabetes.  Chocolate to lower atrial fibrillation risk.  Chocolate milk for concussions.  Chocolate to prevent preeclampsia.  Chocolate to lower heart disease and stroke risk.  Most of these claims melt away in the sunshine of scrutiny.  Most stories contain little evidence. 

But Belluz dismantles a small, preliminary study that was hyped to claim that chocolate fights Alzheimer’s. Maybe we could end some of this news nonsense if more stories dug deeper as she did.  

The ending quote was the money quote:

“The bigger concern is that people are trying to do a better job of selling the research itself and not just telling what the straight out answer is,” University of Toronto nutrition researcher Richard Bazinet said. This study only showed that over a period of three months, in a small group, according to a very narrow test that taps a very specific region of the brain, cocoa supplements enhanced cognition. That became “chocolate fights Alzheimer’s” — a message Mars surely appreciated.

Chocolate maker Mars was the study sponsor.

Michael Joyce | Multimedia Producer

Science is Broken • by Siddhartha Roy & Marc A Edwards • Aeon

There’s been no shortage lately of reporters questioning whether academic research has lost its direction, indeed its soul.

Michael Joyce

Seems like every week we read about plummeting research funding, falsified research, the corporatization of our universities, hyped news releases, as well as puffed up positive results and neglected negative results.

But what Roy and Edwards say makes this perfect storm even worse is a disturbing trend of ‘perverse incentives and the misuse of quantitative metrics’ at our hallowed academic institutions. They argue that by rewarding researchers based on numbers of papers and citations, research dollars brought in, and such things as test scores (or evaluations) by their students, we have ‘decreased the emphasis on socially relevant outcomes and quality.’ They add this:

“Favoring output over outcomes, or quantity over quality, can also create a ‘perversion of natural selection’. Such a system is more likely to weed out ethical and altruistic researchers, while selecting for those who better respond to perverse incentives.”

The end result they posit is a lack of awareness that science should be self-correcting, a flood of sub-standard research papers that lack replicability, and a de-emphasis of science as a public good.

Joy Victory | Deputy Managing Editor

Liquid Gold: Pain Doctors Soak Up Profits By Screening Urine For Drugs • by Fred Schulte and Elizabeth Lucas • Kaiser Health News

Joy Victory

In a stunning example of medical overuse, Kaiser Health News reporters found that pain clinics are often reaping millions from Medicare billing for urine tests related to drug testing. Just how bad is the problem? Spending on urine screens and related tests spiked in 2014 to an estimated $8.5 billion, which according to Kaiser, is more than the budget of the EPA. This dramatic upturn in testing overlaps almost directly with the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Meanwhile, government oversight is spotty and there are no standard guidelines for when and how often testing should be done. Even more troubling, no one knows if the testing has any actual benefits: “How often urine tests reveal serious drug abuse — or suggest patients might be selling some of their medications instead of taking them — is tough to pin down,” the story explains.

So what’s all this testing for? To help patients…or reap profits?

Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

Therapy Is Great, but I Still Need Medication • by Hayden Shelby • Slate

Jill U. Adams

An eye-opening first-person account of someone seeking mental health treatment and running up against an emerging doctrine — that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first-line and end-all treatment for everything. It’s also a story of a patient knowing herself and struggling to get providers to listen.

Soon the story develops another theme: CBT as the morally correct, indeed virtuous choice. Shelby illustrates how that framing can trigger unfair judgments on people struggling with mental health issues. When meds don’t work, we blame the pill. When CBT doesn’t work, we blame the patient.

Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

Placebo effect of the heart • by James Hamblin • The Atlantic

Kevin Lomangino

We’ve already reviewed two excellent stories this week that covered the surprising results of the ORBITA trial. But James Hamblin arguably does the best job of exploring the broader implications of this study and what it reveals about our health care system. The researchers showed, through their meticulously conducted trial, that inserting stents in people with blocked coronary arteries doesn’t work any better than a fake procedure for relieving chest pain.

So how did we get into a situation where we’re conducting half a million of these procedures every year without even knowing if they work? Hamblin walks us through the process that leads to premature adoption of medical interventions and shows how this paradigm can potentially be changed. It’s an informative, if disquieting, journey.

You can find more examples of 5-star writing HERE.

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