Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets at @thejoyvictory.
We’ve been closely tracking healthcare-related news releases for several years now, systematically reviewing more than 550 using our 10 criteria.
We can’t get to every news release we see–the churn is vast. That’s why we’re starting a new ongoing blog series, problematic PR releases, looking at some of the big-picture problems we see in news releases, focusing on what’s been sent to journalists recently.
As we collected examples for this inaugural post, a pattern quickly emerged: There were lots of news releases that claim some new drug or intervention was shown to work in a study–yet no data whatsoever was provided to back up that claim. How can readers evaluate how well something works–and what difference it might make to them in their lives–if there are no hard numbers to show what the study found?
Let’s take a look at some of the top offenders we spotted this week:
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
The news release states that “fitness trackers can be valuable tools for assessing the quality of life and daily functioning of cancer patients during treatment.” There’s even a quote from Cedar-Sinai doctor claiming that “we’re are at the beginning of a revolution in healthcare in which digital wearables…will allow remote monitoring of cancer patients and anticipate the need for intervention before symptoms occur.”
A revolution? That’s powerful. So what were the actual study results? How big is the potential revolution? We’re not told.
Lawson Health Research Institute
As we’ve written numerous times, liquid biopsies garner a lot of headlines and, all too often, false hope. The idea that we can accurately detect cancer with a blood test is alluring–but far more tricky than most news releases want to acknowledge. It’s no different for a blood test used in this manner–to help guide treatment.
The release states a new study “is one of the first to demonstrate that a blood test can predict how patients with advanced prostate cancer will respond to specific treatments, leading to improved survival.”
If true, that’s a big deal. So we immediately scanned–and re-scanned–the release to find the numbers showing said improved survival. No luck.
University of Rochester Medical Center
Another blood test, this time one that purports “to help doctors determine if people who’ve experienced a blow to the head could have a traumatic brain injury such as brain bleeding or bruising.”
Again, this sounds like a big deal–one that could improve treatment for countless injured patients. We learn that the FDA seems to agree–it’s already given the blood test “fast track” approval. The news release also explains that a published study including more than 2,000 patients proves this is so. We get lots and lots of other important-sounding details, including how the test’s effectiveness at diagnosing brain injuries means it “could eliminate needless radiation; allow people to get in and out of the emergency room faster; and lower health care costs.”
What we don’t get are the study findings.
Update, 8/1/18: A spokesperson with URMC wrote to let us know they updated their release to include quantified findings: “We added a line with specific findings from the study: ‘In the clinical trial, the new biomarker test was positive in 97.6 percent of patients with a traumatic intracranial injury on head CT scan, while the probability that a patient with a negative test result had a normal head CT scan was 99.6 percent.’ Here is the link to the updated release.”
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Quite the opener: “Something as simple as a dietary supplement could reduce disruptive, even abusive behavior, according to newly released research by a team led by a UMass Lowell criminal justice professor.”
But along with not getting any information about the study results, we’re also not told how many children were in the study, how aggressive their behavior was before and after the study, nor what the dosing was.
We are, however, told that “Giving children omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduces disruptive behavior, which in turn had a positive effect on their parents, making them less likely to argue with each other and engage in other verbal abuse.”
That’s a pill we won’t be swallowing without some numbers to wash it down.
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