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Why hire a full-time health reporter when you can buy news off the shelf?

Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  Back in the 1970s he worked in local TV health news in Milwaukee and Dallas before joining CNN.  Then he saw the light and left TV news altogether.

While somewhere there is still some important investigative reporting going on in some local TV stations, here is a fresh warning to anyone who gets much of their health care information from local TV health news.

A recent case in point – seen on television stations across the country – is news about a minimally invasive nose-freezing procedure to treat chronic rhinitis – problems with allergies, runny or stuffy noses or other breathing problems.

The procedure uses a device marketed as Clarifix.

Limited data as basis for FDA approval

In 2017 The FDA approved the device for use in adults with chronic rhinitis. It was approved under the agency’s 510(K) clause, with FDA stating that it is “substantially equivalent” to a device already approved and on the market for destroying unwanted tissue during surgical procedures

The pilot trial data – which was enough for the FDA to approve the device – was gathered in only 27 people, 24 of whom were followed for just 90 days. (A longer, non-randomized study now appears to be underway.)

The trial relied heavily on patient reported outcomes and satisfaction – which can be unreliable measurements.

After 90 days use in 24 people, the average patient-reported “nasal symptom” score improved 56 percent.

Only 17 patients in the trial responded to a questionnaire on their level of satisfaction. Ten of the 17 reported the freezing technique to be somewhat or very uncomfortable.

Mega-TV news coverage for this?

When you think about all of the health care news that might be considered newsworthy nationwide, would it be a technique that won FDA approval after being tested in 24 people for a few months?

Local television news stories have touted the device across the US – in Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, Wisconsin. They almost all follow the same predictable pattern.

A.  Feature a patient who tried several medications without relief.

B.  Introduce a local physician who is a true believer in the Clarifix device.

C.  Use the same video animation of the procedure – from the manufacturer.

D.  Cap it off with a sound bite from a satisfied patient.

E.  When the taped story ends, come back to the studio and have the anchor tout how quickly results are seen and how minimal any side effects are.

KOLN in Lincoln, Nebraska promoted the physician they profiled as “one of the few in Nebraska” using this approach and quoted one patient’s advice – “If your allergies make you miserable, go see Dr. Robinson (her doctor).”  Gee, a doctor couldn’t buy that kind of advertising. And he got it free – on the news.

Feeding you a steady diet of ‘Medical Breakthroughs’

Unbeknownst to viewers, the source for some of these copycat stories is a Florida-based news service called Ivanhoe “Medical Breakthroughs.” Ivanhoe calls itself “the country’s largest news-gathering organization covering medical breakthroughs, family health and issues important to women.”

I’ve written about their problematic pre-packaged video reports for more than a decade – as long ago as 2006 and again in 2009.

Ivanhoe’s website states, “Through our three syndicated television series, Ivanhoe’s reports are broadcast in approximately 50 markets reaching 30 million U.S. households.”

Dispelling any doubt about Ivanhoe’s involvement, WNDU in South Bend, Indiana apparently inadvertently posted Ivanhoe background information under a Clarifix story on its website – all under the byline of one of the station’s anchors. Here’s a screenshot from their website:

Cheaper than hiring and training a full-time health care journalist

One New York doctor appears in many of the stories I saw.  That’s largely because he appears in the Ivanhoe video. So if you live in South Bend – or in many other TV markets where a local station touted the device – you may have learned about a New York doctor using it, but you may not have heard anything about anyone in your area using it.

More importantly, you probably didn’t know that you weren’t getting this story because someone in your local TV newsroom sat in an editorial meeting and said, “Hey, why don’t we do something on the latest in treatment for chronic rhinitis?”

Instead, you got this story the same way many other American viewers of local TV news got it – from the widespread distribution of canned videos that put the device in the best possible light and fail to ask probing questions about key points such as how much it costs and how strong is the evidence that it’s safe and effective.  At a time when local TV stations no longer have profit margins of 40%, the Ivanhoe approach is a cheaper, more predictable way of filling your newscast with health care news.  Cheaper than hiring and training a full-time health care reporter.

Of course if you did hire and adequately train a full-time health care journalist, he/she might object to being asked to create a story based on handout video and a pilot study of 24 people for 3 months. And what news director wants to deal with such a problem reporter?

In an article I cited 13 years ago, a website called Grade The News analyzed the Ivanhoe approach.

The company, Ivanhoe Broadcast News, allows local reporters to put their names on stories they didn’t report, film or write — without mentioning Ivanhoe. Stations also are permitted to omit geographical information, giving viewers the false impression that the stories were locally produced and the patients and doctors quoted in the stories could be their neighbors.

In that story, critics called the approach “plagiarism…unethical…deception.”  Thirteen years later, not much has changed.

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