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5-Star Friday: The judicious use of anecdote

5-star fridayYou’ll often hear us warn about the injudicious use of anecdote in conveying health care information. It’s a real problem.

But there is judicious use.

There is personal story that illuminates — but doesn’t substitute for — medical information. And when it’s done well — as it is in many of this week’s 5-star selections — it does more than just help us feel for someone else, it helps us see ourselves more clearly through their experience.


 Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

The Wrong Way to Treat Opioid Addiction • by Maia Szalavitz • The New York Times

Jill U. Adams

The story opens with a heartbreaking anecdote and then makes the startling claim that only one-third of opioid addiction treatment programs offer buprenorphine and/or methadone. Studies show that medication-assisted treatment cuts the death rate from opioid addiction in half. And yet, because the medicines are opioids themselves, they’re viewed as crutches, as continuing patients’ addictions, and they carry great stigma. 

Szalavitz writes: “This widespread rejection of proven addiction medications is the single biggest obstacle to ending the overdose epidemic.” She goes on to distinguish physical dependence from addiction and reminds readers of a straightforward truth: “When a drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, continued use is healthy, not addictive.” Szalavitz has such a sure hand on the topic of addiction that it’s hard to stop quoting her very quotable prose.

Just read it. 


Michael Joyce | Writer-Producer

My Grandmother Was Italian. Why Aren’t My Genes More Italian • by Gisele Grayson • NPR (republished at Kaiser Health News)

Michael Joyce

We need more journalism like this that thoughtfully reveals what can and can’t be learned from direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

Grayson cleverly centers her story on both her own genetic test results, as well as her mother’s (from separate, well-known companies no less) to expose the limitations and inconsistencies of these increasingly popular tests.

If there’s this much variability in test results with ancestry – which are widely considered one of the more reliable tests offered by home genomics companies – just imagine the range of results that might come from tests that claim to provide ‘data’ on such things as fitness, nutrition, wine preferences, and your risk factors for common diseases.


Joy Victory | Deputy Managing Editor

How to Not Die in America • by Molly Osberg • Splinter News

Joy Victory

Beset by a mysterious infection, Molly Osberg uses her own brush with death to illustrate the profound division of healthcare delivery in America: How it works for the haves, and how it doesn’t work for the have-nots. Her medical bill for a summer of intensive healthcare totaled nearly $700,000. Why it costs this much would take a lifetime to tease out, yet many of us only have split-seconds to make complicated financial decisions related to our care (if we’re conscious enough to do so).

If Osberg’s alternate reality version of her story strikes you as inaccurate or alarmist, I recommend reading this next: One Kentucky woman’s heart-wrenching decision to end her health care nightmare by Traci Potts. It reveals how even something as seemingly minor as transportation to the dialysis clinic can derail a person’s will to live.


Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

Trump’s top health official traded tobacco stock while leading anti-smoking efforts • by Sarah Karlin Smith and Brianna Ehley • Politico

Kevin Lomangino

You want impact? It’s hard to come up with a more concrete example of the power of good journalism than this exposé documenting the tobacco investments of former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald. This story led to Fitzgerald’s resignation from her post the day after it was published.

The piece came from solid watchdog practices – scrutiny of a government ethics report on Fitzgerald’s financial disclosures – and helps bring home why such reporting is vital to our democracy. It also helps shine a light on conflicts of interest, and how financial entanglements can jeopardize public trust in our health care institutions.

It’s worth noting that tobacco isn’t the only industry that poses a conflict for the CDC. Earlier this week we described how critics believe the NFL may be seeking to “manufacture doubt” about head injuries through its partnership with the agency. We also offer a primer on the myriad ways that conflicts of interest impact health care and health care journalism.


At HealthNewsReview.org, a vital part of our mission is our systematic, criteria-driven reviews of both news stories and news releases. That’s not what you’ve read above. The above articles simply reflect our commitment to sharing some of the many examples of great health journalism we come across.

Here’s one example of a news story we systematically reviewed over the past few weeks that earned 5-stars by satisfying most of our 10 criteria.

As reviewers noted, there’s been a flood of stories lately about blood tests (so called liquid biopsies) to test for cancer. This story hits the mark by clearly explaining the importance of false positives and negatives, as well as thoughtfully including independent sources who sidestep the hype and provide pragmatic insights into the limitations of cancer screening.”


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

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