Problematic PR releases: Where’s the data?

Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of 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:

Fitness trackers prove helpful in monitoring cancer patients

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.


Blood test can predict optimal treatment for advanced prostate cancer, study finds

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.


Study supports blood test to help diagnose brain injury

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.”


New study: Omega-3s help keep kids out of trouble

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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Comments (4)

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Christine Gillette

July 30, 2018 at 12:11 pm

The actual post of the UMass Lowell press release cited here includes a link to the journal article, which includes full data from the research. The release in your article is from a secondary website that posts research news and also includes the link to the journal article and data in a sidebar on the same page, which is their formatting style. Your comments do not allow posting of the link to the release or research, but anyone interested in either should feel free to reach out and I will provide it to you.

    Joy Victory

    July 30, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Christine–thanks for sending in your comment. I also replied to your email you sent separately.

    We weren’t referring to links to studies.

    Instead, we expect news release writers to include at least a sentence or two about the key findings–quantified–within the body of the news release.

    As in, by how much did the intervention reduce aggression — i.e., what was the numerical decrease in the Conflicts Tactic Scale? — compared to the control group.

    For example, and I’m making up the number here, the news release could have something like this: “The intervention group experienced a 3-point drop on the Conflicts Tactic Scale compared to the control group.” This helps journalists understand how impactful the research was and how that impact was measured.

    In this case, it also doesn’t appear that the study abstract includes any quantified findings. All I see here is: “Caregivers of children in the omega‐3 group reported long‐term reductions in psychological aggression in a group × time interaction.”

    Here’s a recent high-scoring news release that did a fantastic job on this point:

Emily Boynton

August 1, 2018 at 8:23 am

Thank you for highlighting the lack of data in our recent press release, “Study supports blood test to help diagnose brain injury.” 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:

    Joy Victory

    August 1, 2018 at 9:25 am

    Thank you! I’ve added an “update” note to the post itself, too.