Framing – and placement of components within a story – can make such a difference. There was good balance and independent perspective in this story – such as this quote: “The (test’s) performance may decrease considerably when the test is used in a large population of healthy individuals.” But it came late, long after the story had led with the cheerleading sentence above.
The story says that “probably only 40% adhere to the (colon cancer) screening schedule over time” That was one researcher’s estimate – someone with a vested financial interest in this research (as Philadelphia Inquirer reported, some of his technology was licensed by the company for this test). But the fact is that the CDC BRFSS survey estimates that about 60% of US adults are up to date with screening, most with colonoscopy. That is a big difference from 40%, and one has to wonder why that was not double-checked. Still, there clearly are a lot of people being missed. How to improve those numbers is up for debate. Stories about new types of screening need to make clear comparisons between the success rates of colonoscopies now and the possible success rates of these emerging technologies.
No mention of possible or projected costs. Other stories estimated in the $300 per test ballpark.
The story gave the same basic benefits data that the other stories gave, but it, too, didn’t compare this data with any of the existing colon cancer screening methods, leaving readers with no good sense of the potential scope of the benefits suggested. There was only one vague reference to the new approach being able to find tumors on both sides of the colon, “a feat that is not always accomplished by colonoscopy.”
No discussion of potential harms.
The story included WebMD’s boilerplate language for such stories: “This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the “peer review” process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.”
Better yet, though, was the quote provided by Dr. Durado Brooks of the American Cancer Society: “The (test’s) performance may decrease considerably when the test is used in a large population of healthy individuals.” That’s the value of getting independent perspectives to evaluate evidence.
However, a significant limitation that is only indirectly noted is that initial accuracy studies in non-representative samples of cases and non-cases (like this study) usually overestimate performance. That is why they are planning another study.
No disease mongering in this story
Mixed bag: The story did include comments from two independent experts, which was good.
But the story never fully explained the lead researcher’s true ties to the company making the test. There was only this vague and unhelpful line: “Ahlquist and Mayo Clinic are working in collaboration with Exact Sciences Corp. of Madison, Wis., to develop the test.”
Nonethless, we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this criterion.
No meaningful comparison with existing colon cancer screening tests and no acknowledgement that there are other new tests now in development.
The story explains that a clinical trial may begin in 2011 and said that the lead researcher believed that “if all goes well the test could be available soon after that.”
Some attempt was made to explain what might be novel about this approach, but the story never mentioned that there are competing tests now in development. The New York Times was much better on this point, mentioning the competition in its very first words.
The story appears to be based on things said at a news conference, not things said in a news release.