The story starts with a gee whiz hook but then gives readers the necessary context. It also uses independent voices, spends nearly as much time talking about the potential harms as the benefits and provides a solid exploration of the alternatives to surgery. Perhaps the best part of the story is the very end where it provides the audience with a clear message on what they should do with these study results. The short answer: get your vision checked because this is just one of many new ways you might be able to save or restore your eyesight.
Everyone starts to lose some vision as they age, and macular degeneration, in particular, affects millions of people. This story serves as both a nice piece of hope for a subset of these people and as a reminder to everyone else that there are multiple ways to treat the disease.
This sounds like a lengthy and involved procedure that would require expensive technical expertise during surgery. The device itself has to be very expensive. Because there are lower-tech surgical alternatives and non-surgical alternatives, insurance companies may be slow to cover this sort of procedure. Given that, it would have been nice to see a ballpark figure for how much this costs.
The story doesn’t spend a lot of time with the numbers, but it does a pretty good job capturing the potential benefits.
The fourth sentence talks about the potential harms, a rarity for any health story. In fact, the whole second paragraph should be part of a template for most health writing. "Findings from the clinical trials show that the telescope does improve vision for the majority of patients. Still, there are some concerns about corneal damage, since the telescope is relatively large inside the eye. And the population who might benefit from the new device is somewhat limited. The treatment doesn’t work for those who have had cataract surgery. And for those who catch the disease early on, there may be better options." One of our reviewers just printed that out and taped it to his computer screen.
The story does a good job of explaining the evidence in absolute numbers and in percentages. So, if you think that it sounds impressive that 75% of the patients had major improvements in their vision, you can check that against the fact that 10 out of 219 patients had corneal problems after the surgery. It would have been good to explain how vision improvement was measured. Was it through objective vision tests or through a Q&A with patients or both?
The story starts out by saying the procedure "could help millions of older adults who are nearly blinded by macular degeneration." This isn’t quite disease mongering, and, if we look at the disease globally, that’s potentially true. In the U.S. alone, according to the American Health Assistance Foundation, about 1.75 million Americans age 40 who suffer from acute macular degeneration. But the story then makes it clear that not all of them would be candidates for this procedure. Given that "millions" are used in the lead, it would have been smart to follow up with a more realistic number of how many might actually benefit.
The bottom third of the story relies heavily, perhaps too much so, on Dr. George Williams, a retinal surgeon given the vague title of "associated with the American Academy of Ophthalmology." Those quibbles aside, Williams provides some great insight and counterbalancing information. It also explains that the other expert in the story, Dr. Kathryn A. Colby, was one of the principal investigators in the story.
Again, this could be a model for other stories. It places the new surgery in the context of existing surgeries and compares it to drug treatments, even explaining how those treatments and surgeries are performed, all in just a few sentences. Every story should have a section like this:
"Cataract surgery removes the natural lens and, in most cases, replaces it with an artificial lens, which means there is no foundation for the telescope. And for patients who are in the early stages of macular degeneration, Williams says that medications approved just six years ago are effective and a lot less invasive than the telescope. The drugs are injected directly into the eye on a monthly basis. And with this treatment, doctors are able to prevent severe visual loss in over 90 percent of patients. In nearly half of all patients, visual improvement is significant."
The only thing that would have made this better is if the reporter had asked at least one more source besides Williams for comments and context.
The story makes it clear that this is an experimental study and says that the FDA plans to monitor the side effects for five years. We’re not quite sure why this story was coming out now given that the FDA approved this device at the beginning of the month. (Read about it.) How widely available is it? Never made crystal clear.
The story puts the procedure into the right context. It could be more clear about whether there are similar devices out there that improve vision. (There are.)
This story does not rely on a news release.