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Foreign Clinics Lure Americans With Unproven Treatments


4 Star

Foreign Clinics Lure Americans With Unproven Treatments

Our Review Summary

This report describes the trend of some patients going overseas to get medical procedures that are not approved in the U.S. The articles focuses on one such treatment: adult stem cell treatment for advanced heart failure.

  • The piece follows most health journalism best practices, including reporting on costs and availability and using a variety of sources.
  • Its most serious flaw is that it creates the impression–via anecdote, quote and a physician comment–that heart failure is untreatable by conventional methods. This simply isn’t accurate, and it could create unjustified fear and despair among those with heart failure.   

With that one exception, the article delivers a high level of public service by inviting readers’ skepticism throughout.

It notes how the clinic’s operator made outcome claims but won’t release data, how available data on U.S. clinical trials is inconclusive, and it quotes a spokesman for a research association who recommends specific factors patients considering an oversees procedure should consider.   


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


The story reports that overseas stem cell treatment for heart failure cost one patient $13,000.


Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The article briefly summarizes a major journal report on stem cell treatment for heart failure that finds little risk and only a "modest benefit." Since the story is premised on the fact that little evidence supports the treatment, this is sufficient.  However, given all of this, it may have been better for the story to put more emphasis on the fallacy in the statements by the company’s medical director that 75 to 80 percent of patients improve significantly, and that "We are their last resort."

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not describe the potential harms of getting the treatment overseas. It implies the waste of money and potential safety issues but should have included more detail.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The article makes clear that there is no high-quality scientific evidence demonstrating the treatment’s efficacy.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The article does nothing to exaggerate the danger of heart failure or the promise of the stem cell treatment.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The reporter drew on a variety of sources:

  • One patient who has received the stem cell treatment for heart failure and whose outcome is not known
  • The director of an overseas clinic that offers the treatment
  • One physician who believes the overseas treatment is unethical, and one who recommended it to a patient as a last resort
  • A spokesman for the International Society for Stem Cell Research

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The article does not report on other treatment options for heart failure patients.

Combined with the unsubstantiated claim of 75 to 80 percent efficacy–and the comment that the overseas treatment is a "last resort"–this creates the impression that other treatments for heart failure don’t exist or are futile.

This is the article’s most serious flaw. 

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


The story does an excellent job of describing the conditions under which adult stem cell treatments for heart failure are available both overseas and domestically.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The article reports that the treatment is in clinical trials here and about 300 people have had the procedure overseas. 

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


There is no evidence that the story is based on a press release.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory


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