Across the vast Reuters news empire, the quality of health and medical research news coverage varies widely.
This story from Hong Kong failed to address most of our criteria.
The story explains the importance of depression research by citing a World Health Organization estimate of disease burden. But the story didn’t live up to that importance.
With high quality depression care, 50-70% of patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) recover w/in 6-12 months. Therefore, we continue to need better treatments for those who aren’t helped by currently available treatments. Acupuncture has shown promise for other mental health conditions. For example, acupuncture has shown a clinically important effect for PTSD in 2 randomized trials (one not yet published). If acupuncture were effective for major depressive disorder (and in particular if effective for treatment resistant MDD) it would be yet another option to treat this illness.
No estimate was provided of what electroacupuncture for depression – nine times over 3 weeks as in the study – would cost.
Acupuncture is almost never covered by insurance. Each session costs > $100 in the U.S. So a 9 session course is likely >$1,000.
In contrast, generic SSRI drugs are $4/month and if the patient responds well – about $50 of medication + doctor visits (we could estimate $400) that is covered by insurance. So out of pocket costs might be < $100.
No description of the size of the potential benefit – only this vague quote:
“The drop (in depression scores) among the group receiving active treatment was more significant than the placebo group,” said Roger Ng, another researcher in the group, which published their findings in the journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) ONE.
The researchers measured response using 3 scales (2 interviewer-administered and 1 self-administered). There was only a clear response on one scale (and it looks clinically significant). One scale showed no response and one was equivocal.
There was no discussion of harms.
The journal article explained that adverse events (including dizziness, tiredness, nausea, excessive sweating, headache, transient tachycardia, insomnia, vomiting, unsteadiness and somnolence) occurred in at least 5% of the patients in either group and that two patients discontinued due to intolerance of acupuncture stimulation.
Even the journal article itself raised the following limitations, which the story did not acknowledge:
In addition, two thirds of the study subjects had prior experience with acupuncture so this may be a highly selected and receptive sample
There was no disease-mongering of depression in the story; neither was there much information about the study subjects except that they “had suffered several bouts of depression in the last 7 years.”
That’s pretty broad.
No independent expert perspective was included.
No meaningful comparison was given with any other approach to depression.
There was no explanation of the availability of electroacupuncture. This is certainly an important issue in the USA, which is where we – and presumably many other readers – found the story online.
Some research has been published about electroacupuncture for mental illness – including by this same research group – yet the story didn’t hint at any of it.
We can’t be sure of the extent to which the story may have relied on a news release.