60 Minutes promotes one hospital’s “promise of plasma”

Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He has been a health care journalist for 47 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

I’m a bit late on this with only a few excuses.  The birth of a new grandson.  Computer problems.  Living in the Minneapolis area and being focused on the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests.

But this is worth addressing, even though a little late.

CBS 60 Minutes broadcast a story it called, “The Promise of Plasma,” about a trial of convalescent plasma at just one medical center in New Jersey.

You’re going to hear a lot about convalescent plasma because the approach makes intuitive sense.  But science needs to prove that things work. Intuition is not sufficient.  And the 60 Minutes story did a pretty weak job of establishing the difference. (The Mayo Clinic explains convalescent plasma on its website.)

Here are some of the things that could have been improved in the 60 Minutes story.

  • There are many clinical trials of convalescent plasma all over the US and all over the world.  CBS referred to tests at “numerous hospitals” – which is a bit of an understatement.  And the only one mentioned, the only one profiled by CBS, was one in New Jersey, which CBS notes is “just a 30-minute drive from midtown Manhattan,” where 60 Minutes is based.  Perhaps that’s why CBS chose to shine its light only on one hospital.
  • The tone of the piece was highly promotional.  It referred to the hospital’s “breakneck battle” and “all out battle.” The segment’s title – “The promise of plasma” – is alluring alliteration. But “promising” was one of the words patients have told me they don’t need to hear in medical news stories.
  • The only data – the only evidence – provided by 60 Minutes was what this one hospital told them:  “So far, 31 of the 46 patients who received plasma in this study appear to have recovered more quickly than those who didn’t.”  There are many holes in that statement and many questions left unanswered by CBS.  And no data from all of the other clinical trials around the globe were presented.
  • There was also no independent perspective in the story.  All of the input came from one hospital and one research team.  Nothing from anyone at any of the other clinical trial sites, no comment from the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration. It was wonderful PR for the New Jersey hospital.  It was not the best journalism for 60 Minutes viewers.
  • Often it is what journalists allow interviewees to say – unchallenged – that is most concerning.  That happened with this 60 Minutes story.

CBS quoted a researcher who is helping to lead the New Jersey hospital’s convalescent plasma trial.  This is how the story ended.

CBS’ Bill Whitaker: Based on what you have seen so far, what does your gut tell you?

David Perlin, researcher: My gut says that this is going to work. The initial response of the patients is incredibly encouraging. But as a scientist, I’m trained to be cautious. And so right now this is our best approach, we are going to take it, we’ll be aggressive with it but we’ll see how patients respond.

Benjamin Mazer, MD, a physician who is very active on social media, tweeted:

Another physician joined Mazer with pointed skepticism:

So, even though researcher Perlin made an attempt to remind himself to be cautious, he went ahead and called the experiment “our best approach.”  Well you can’t say that it’s the best approach because you don’t know that. That is why you’re doing the trial.  And CBS should have addressed that.  They didn’t, and that’s the take home message they ended with.

An RN/paramedic on Twitter reflected on the impact of stories like this on viewers:

We have criticized 60 Minutes in the past.  Just two examples:

60 Minutes piece on Kanzius cancer cure not worth 60 seconds

CBS proclaims ‘cancer breakthrough’ – doesn’t explain what FDA means by that term

As always, when we criticize, we try to do so constructively, pointing to ways in which a story could have been improved – often with little effort. We hope 60 Minutes pays attention.

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