Criterion #8 Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


New medical treatments often get lots of attention before they’re ever made available to the public. After reading a story about a new intervention, a person should be able to answer: Is it actually available to me?

About 25% of the stories we’ve reviewed were rated ‘Not Satisfactory’ when it came to establishing availability.

Sometimes news stories report on things as if they were available at the corner drug store (or doctor’s office), when, in fact, they may be years away from even coming on the market. There may be a lot of marketing hype that suggests that something is well-studied and ready for use–this hype is good for stock prices, but not patients.

Projections: Is the intervention FDA approved for the specific use under discussion? If not, what are the steps left in the process before approval can happen? Whenever you hear a prediction about something “expected to be approved by the FDA” in a certain time period, take it with a grain of salt. It doesn’t get approved until it gets approved. Ignore crystal ball predictions; they usually come from someone who stands to benefit. We encourage a discussion of the steps left in the process rather than guesses about when it will be available.

It’s also important to know that “approved” medical devices in the U.S. may not be safe or effective.

Where it’s being used: Perhaps something is approved in Europe, but not in the U.S. That should raise questions about why it hasn’t been submitted for approval in the U.S. yet, or why it hasn’t gained approval yet.

If it’s already approved, or doesn’t need to be approved (such as a new surgical method or a new type of exercise equipment), it’s usually not enough to just say the intervention is “available.” For example, if it’s a type of heart surgery, do patients have to travel to specific hospitals that offer that surgery? If it’s a new fitness fad, is it only available in trendy gyms in Manhattan? If it’s a new drug, will it immediately be stocked on pharmacy shelves?

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org:

Satisfactory examples:

LA Times strikes the right balance by reporting evenly on both harms and benefits of ‘magic mushrooms’ for cancer patients
Reviewers noted the story was strong on this criterion. For example, the story notes: “[F]inding drugs like psilocybin effective is by no means the final hurdle to their widespread availability. None are currently in production, and no for-profit pharmaceutical company would likely invest millions of dollars to bring to market a pill intended effectively for one-time use.” Well done.

Independent source and costs: All that’s missing from otherwise solid Reuters story on Victoza
The story makes it clear that the drug is already established on the market, calling it “top-selling” at the start of the story. The story also helps readers by mentioning that the drug is typically prescribed as a third or fourth option, letting us know that it’s not considered a primary treatment.

Newsweek speculates about an ‘obesity cure,’ and doesn’t disclose important conflict of interest
While the story missed the mark on several other criteria, it did well on availability. That’s because the reporter makes clear that this research was done in rodents and therefore is years away (at best) from even beginning clinical trials in humans.

Not Satisfactory examples

Surgery instead of reading glasses? NBC’s look at new implant leaned hard on one patient anecdote
Both of these eye implants are approved by the FDA, the story tells us, but its not clear if they are widely available. Do surgeons need training in how to handle these new devices? Is surgery only available in large metropolitan areas? Is it performed in a doctor’s office? We wish the story had included some details on this.

When worms are the clickbait: NPR story confuses more than informs
The story mentions that one person obtained worms in Mexico in an attempt to ingest them as an allergy treatment. Otherwise, there’s no information about their availability. In fact, selling worms for therapeutic use is illegal in the U.S.–this should have been mentioned.

ABC story on stroke surgery: More needed on costs, harms, conflicts of interest
The story makes clear that endovascular thrombectomy is neither new nor uncommon, but doesn’t explain that the procedure is only available at certain stroke treatment centers and applies to only a subset of patients. (It tells us only “certain” patients are eligible, but doesn’t explain beyond that.)