The major difference is that Reuters attempted to put the study’s main finding — a 23% improvement with the new treatment on a test of cognitive abilities — into meaningful terms for readers. And although WebMD quoted more sources (four independent experts compared with Reuters’ one), we think Reuters managed to cover most of the same ground and deliver the same cautious messages despite relying on fewer sources. Overall, we were impressed with how effortlessly this story checked off nearly all of our 10 boxes without wandering or getting too wordy. This is a great example of health journalism that is interesting to read and provides a valuable service to patients.
It is telling that researchers with this study really couldn’t say whether the results they observed would matter to patients. It’s a reminder that benefits deemed “significant” in research studies may not always lead to improvements that are meaningful in the real world. Journalists perform an important service when they raise awareness of the gap between research results and the reality experienced by their readers.
The story states that the transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine costs about $50,000, but it could also have noted — as WebMD did — that there are costs associated with training clinicians to use the machine. In addition, neither story tried to estimate what a course of treatment might cost patients or their insurers — information which probably could be gleaned by looking at the costs of TMS treatment for depression. Although there was room for improvement here, we think the story does enough to merit a satisfactory.
This story provides a more nuanced look at potential benefits of TMS than the competing WebMD coverage. In addition to providing statistics on the amount of improvement seen in the stimulation group, the story notes that “it’s not clear what the amount of improvement they observed would mean for patients in their daily lives.” It also explains that the benefits were more pronounced among those with more serious symptoms. This is important context for patients or caregivers who want to know how the research findings might apply to them.
The story did not mention potential adverse effects of TMS or state whether any adverse effects were seen in the study.
Although the story describes features of the study that reduce the potential for biased results (e.g. randomization, inclusion of a placebo control group that received fake magnetic stimulation), we thought it could have lingered a bit longer on the limitations of such a very small study that included only 20 people (only 9 of which actually received a full course of TMS treatment). Nevertheless, the story delivers the correct take-home message when it says, “larger studies at multiple treatment sites are needed to determine how helpful magnetic stimulation can be in stroke recovery.”
The story notes that about half of the 800,000 people who suffer a stroke each year experience symptoms similar to those of patients in this study. This gives readers a good frame of reference for judging the impact the treatment might have.
The story quotes an author of the new study as well as a neurologist who wasn’t involved with the research. In fact, that independent expert was quoted before the study author was.
The story says that doctors typically prescribe cognitive rehabilitation for patients with post-stroke “neglect” symptoms, but that progress is often slow and the associated hospital stays costly.
The story states: “…brain stimulation is still an experimental technique, and not ready to be used as part of normal stroke rehabilitation.”
The story explains that TMS is currently used for depression and during spinal surgery, and that its use for stroke patients is novel.
This story clearly did not rely solely or largely on a press release.