This story was a very engaging, human interest story. But it did not do a good job of informing the public about tinnitus or brain stimulation as a potential future treatment.
The interview material helped demonstrate that at least for the individuals interviewed, tinnitus is debilitating. However the story did little to put into perspective for the reader how common it is to see this level of affliction. The story also failed to clarify for the reader whether the benefits of the experimental approach were long term or not, and the percentage of people who respond. It discussed "significant improvement" in a small number of experimental subjects, but didn’t explain what that meant. And it didn’t emphasize the limitations of such small sample sizes.
Costs weren’t discussed.
Possible side effects were minimized.
Although the approach is experimental for the treatment of tinnitus, it is a procedure used for other applications and so an estimate of the costs involved could have been provided. The story does not discuss the fact that it is unlikely that insurance would cover the costs for this experimental approach at this time.
There was little quantification of benefits from the experimental approach other than the patient reports of reductions in their symptoms. The story did not provide any context for the percentage of patients who experience symptom relief, the extent to which, on average, symptoms are relieved, or the average length of time symptoms are diminished. It discussed "significant improvement" in a small number of experimental subjects, but didn’t explain what that meant.
Although at least one patient report in the story made it clear that the benefits of the experimental approach might only be temporary, the story did not provide any other details about potential harms or side effects that might result. It did include several comments that seemed to dismmiss the potential for bad things to happen when inserting things into the skull.
Several people were quoted as saying that this was a promising approach. The studies that were mentioned all involved small numbers of patients and it was less than clear what percent of patients experienced relief and whether that relief was long lived or not. While the story included several examples of very vivid individual accounts of at least short term benefit, it failed to provide sufficient balance about the benefits of the experimental approach. The only randomized clinical trial of vagus nerve stimulation for depression was a negative study and it wasn’t cited in this article.
This story engaged in disease mongering because it presented only the most extreme examples for the extent to which people with tinnitus are affected.
While the story included an estimate for the number of affected individuals that came from a press release from the American Tinnitus Assocation, information from a peer reviewed publication estimated that though tinnitus was relatively common, affecting up to 17% of the population, only 14% reported that it bothered them a great deal (Acta Otolaryngol Suppl 1990 476:202-208).
Several patients and clinicians were quoted for this story. Some of the experts did mention that the mechanism by which this experimental approach has its effect was not understood.
There was inadequate discussion of the treatment options for tinnitus. The story mentions a variety of treatments tried by a patient – including chemotherapy – but there is no careful discussion of the various existing treatment options.
The story was clear that the experimental approach is not widely available.
The story was clear that deep brain stimulation, though not a new treatment, was relatively new as an experimental approach for tinnitus.
Does not rely exclusively on a press release.