This a tidy little release that gives just enough information for reporters to decide whether it’s newsworthy. The release summarizes a randomized clinical trial which enrolled 107 elderly nursing home patients. Half the enrolled patients received a very large dose of vitamin D (3,300-4,300 units daily) and the controls were given a lower dose (400-1,000 units daily). The outcome of interest was that the high dose patients developed fewer respiratory infections than the control group. However, the patients in the high dose group also had more falls.
What the release lacks is the right context to help readers understand the significance of the findings. We love the fact that, unlike most news releases, it makes mention of the potential side effects, twice even. But it falls short on a discussion of costs, benefits, alternatives, and funding sources. These would have been easy additions that would have added marginally to the length of the release.
Reducing the rate of acute respiratory illness (ARI) in the elderly could lead to a reduction in serious infections leading to pneumonia and death.
There is no mention of costs in the release. Even though we are talking about vitamin D, which can be found at any drugstore for around $20 a bottle, we estimate that it could cost about $10 – $15 for a 30-day supply.
The release did not provide adequate quantification of benefits. It said that of the 55 elderly people who received high doses of vitamin D, “those with higher doses saw ARIs cut nearly in half.” That’s quite vague. What was the rate before? Would all 55 have developed ARIs or only two?
The release notes that the higher doses of vitamin D also had unintended side effects. It reports that the number of falls in the high dose group was significantly increased, although according to the study, the number of hip fractures was not different in the two groups.
The release meets our standard here, but the finding of more falls should arguably have received more emphasis. Falls might lead to more hip fractures, which could cancel out any “lifesaving” benefits from reduced rates of respiratory infection.
The release describes the basic outlines of the year-long trial, and it notes that the findings were published in a journal. The release also clues readers in to limitations of the study. It cautions that “the study is not definitive proof that vitamin D can prevent ARI.
” It also states that “This finding requires a confirmatory trial, including whether high daily doses of vitamin D, rather than high monthly doses, makes patients less likely to fall,” according to the lead author.
It’s worth noting that, according to the published study, less than 10 percent of the patients approached to take part in the study agreed to participate. This might suggest that the findings may apply to only a subset of nursing home patients.
There is no disease mongering in the release.
The release does not make any mention of funding sources. The published study lists government agencies, including the Veterans Administration, as sponsors.
The release says that there are not enough good options for preventing ARIs, but it does not adequately explain the options.
There’s no mention of availability, but it’s generally understood that vitamin D is widely available.
The release notes that the clinical trial was the first to examine vitamin D’s impact on respiratory infections in nursing home residents, and explains clearly that the findings require a confirmatory clinical trial.
We never like to see terms like “life saving” even when the word “potentially” is appended in the front. The headline on this release says, “A potentially life-saving discovery in older patients at high risk for these illnesses.”