Even in a very short story, WebMD manages to cover many of the important issues readers need to know in order to make sense of what seems like a fascinating piece of research: an electronic nose that sniffs out heart failure. The story could have spent more time with independent experts and delved a little more deeply into the risks associated with a device that provides an incorrect diagnoses 16% of the time.
Some of us are old enough to remember Dr. McCoy’s trusty Tricorder from Star Trek, a device that could give lab results and make a diagnosis possible with just a wave of a probe over the patient. It is not surprising then that journalists would pick up on yet another version of a potential real life device.That doesn’t mean, though, that it deserves all the attention and resources that a more significant medical advance based on substantial evidence would merit. Overall, though, WebMD devoted an appropriate amount of attention to this limited study on a computerized heart failure sniffer.
The story does not discuss costs. Because the research is in its infancy and there does not appear to be a comparable device, we don’t think the cost question applies here.
The story notes that, “11% of cases would have been missed and 16% of people would have been told they had a life-threatening condition when they didn’t.” There could have been a little more discussion of the ramifications of a test with this kind of error rate.
The research findings were presented in a poster session at an international seminar and as such have not been subjected to peer review. The story pointed out one of the major limitations of the study: the fact that it covered fewer than 100 people. We wish it had explored other possible limitations and that it had been more explicit about the study methods and other inherent limitations
The story explains clearly who might benefit from such a device. It says, “More than 5 million Americans have heart failure, which occurs when the heart muscle loses its ability to pump enough blood throughout the body. Fluid can back up into the lungs, leaving people short of breath.”
One indepedent source is quoted. The story was based on a news briefing at a research conference, and we understand the need to file under deadline pressure. At the same time, we think the story would have benefited from at least one discussion with an expert outside of the study or the news briefing, perhaps another expert on a panel at the same conference. The story could have noted that a patent application has been filed for the device.
There is no comparison with existing alternatives, which leaves readers a bit confused. How is heart failure detected now and why would the world need this device? There are numerous diagnostic tests used in the diagnosis of heart failure, many of them as simple as a blood test or ultrasound.
The story makes it clear that this device is still in the early phases of testing.
The story indicates that this would be a novel approach, but not enough evidence or context is presented to establish this. While the specifics may be unique, the concept has been the topic of research since the mid to late 1990s.
The story does not rely on a news release.