This story fails on many levels:
And, while a brief comment was made about prostate cancer screening being “controversial,” the story never explained that the US Preventive Services Task Force concludes that there’s insufficient evidence to weigh the balance of harms and benefits in prostate cancer screening in men younger than 75. But the story did allow a researcher to say this test could be particularly useful in men under 60.
The failure to evaluate the limitations of the evidence and the failure to challenge researchers’ bold claims made this an example of stenography more than an example of journalism.
The numbers given were absolutely useless – “men whose index finger is longer than their ring finger were one-third less likely to develop the disease than men with the opposite pattern of finger lengths.” There are countless questions about what this means, but the story didn’t answer them.
And, of course, the story never got around to any discussion of really meaningful potential benefits – such as, what is known about the benefits of treating prostate cancers that are picked up by screening? Again, see the US Preventive Services Task Force conclusion that “the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of prostate cancer screening in men younger than age 75 years.”
If a story is going to let a researcher get away with saying this “could be used as a simple test for prostate cancer”- and not challenge that comment in any way, then we feel there must be balance somewhere in the story about potential harms.
The story starts to lean in the right direction when it states: “A study in the United States last year found routine prostate cancer screening there had resulted in more than one million men being diagnosed with tumors who might otherwise have suffered no ill effects from them.”
But it doesn’t specify what the harm is from this – the anxiety, the unnecessary followup testing and possible subsequent treatment carrying its own risks and costs.
This is the fundamental problem with this story. There isn’t one word about the limitations of such observational studies (read our primer on this topic), nor about the methods of this study.
How reliable is questioning men and showing them pictures of different finger length patterns and then asking them to identify the one most similar to their own?
Yet the story lets the researcher get away – unchallenged – with saying this “could be used as a simple test for prostate cancer.”
There is no independent expert perspective questioning this assertion or evaluting the evidence.
The story does commit implicit disease-mongering by stating in the very first sentence that this is “a finding that could be used to help select those who need regular screening for the disease.” This statement presumes that anyone would need regular screening for prostate cancer – something for which the US Preventive Services Task Force concludes that “the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of prostate cancer screening in men younger than age 75 years.”
The American Cancer Society states: “Research has not yet proven that the potential benefits of testing outweigh the harms of testing and treatment. The American Cancer Society believes that men should not be tested without learning about what we know and don’t know about the risks and possible benefits of testing and treatment.“
There was no independent perspective in the story – something that was badly needed.
No comparison was made between this approach and other existing prostate cancer screening methods.
Not applicable. There isn’t such a test available yet.
The story does offer some context for this area of research when it states: “Previous studies have linked finger length to aggression, fertility, sporting ability and confidence and reaction times.” But it fails to note that there’s been other research on the question of finger length and prostate cancer risk – in the Korean Cohort study – something mentioned in the journal article.
And the story again fails to question the evidence when it allows a researcher to state, “Our study indicates it is the hormone levels that babies are exposed to in the womb that can have an effect decades later,” when this observational study simpy can’t establish that.
Not applicable. We can’t be sure of the extent to which the story was influenced by a news release. We do know that no independent source appeared in the story.