This is a bite-size but informative story from Reuters Health reporting new research that assessed the confidence levels and feelings of embarrassment in people helping melanoma survivors to look for suspicious moles in hard-to-see body parts.
One downside to this story is the lack of independent sources. Without a third-party opinion, it is hard to understand how important this new research is.
Over a million people in the United States alone are at high risk of secondary melanomas after having treatment to remove a malignant tumor. Barriers to finding secondary tumors, such as feelings of embarrassment or a lack of confidence in people helping melanoma survivors with skin exams, are important to find out about and mitigate.
Although presumably there is a cost associated with training people to recognize melanomas, having a partner help check for suspicious moles can be assumed to be cost-free.
The research letter in JAMA Dermatology used survey questions to assess the confidence and embarrassment that partners felt when helping to search for cancerous moles. The story from Reuters reported the survey results, though it didn’t quantify them:
Among people who received the skin exam training, the researchers found a steep increase in their confidence at performing skin exams between the start of the study and four months later.
“Their confidence level goes up and plateaus at eight to 12 months, and it doesn’t go down,” said Robinson.
The exams didn’t become more embarrassing or less comfortable, either.
But, we’re left to wonder: How much did their confidence levels go up? When the study or news release doesn’t spell that out clearly (nor use laymen’s terms), it’s up to the reporter to find out and let readers know. We recognize this isn’t easy to do on deadline, but it would have made an average story stand above the competition.
Having a partner check for melanomas doesn’t have immediate harms, so we’ll rate this N/A. It could be harmful if a person relies too heavily on a friend’s assessment versus a physician’s though.
The study is a straightforward survey of people’s feelings of confidence and embarrassment, with appropriate statistical analysis applied to the results. There is little for the writer to interrogate in the quality of the evidence, though perhaps it would have been useful to hear from an expert in patient psychology to understand how these kind of surveys relate to real-life health behaviors.
We also liked how the story included this caveat:
Bringing this program into the mainstream presents some challenges, however. Each person in the study was trained on how to find melanoma and attended booster sessions every four months.
“We are now trying to see if people can learn, perform and have continuing confidence without the physician reinforcement,” said Robinson.
It is well established that early detection of secondary melanomas leads to improved chances of survival.
The story could have stressed that it still remains to be fully determined what sorts of follow-up can most efficiently lead to early detection of secondary melanomas. Seeing a dermatologist every week might work, but is unlikely to be necessary. Supplementing doctor visits with self or partner skin examinations has evidence of likely benefit in other studies.
The only person quoted in the story is the lead author of the study. It is always important to hear from at least one independent expert in order to put new results the views of researchers into context. Without hearing from a dispassionate third party, it is hard to know how important this new research actually is.
Early on in the news story, the writer mentions that without a partner to assist in skin examinations, patients are told to use mirrors to check out hard-to-reach body parts.
The availability of having a partner help with mole-spotting would seem to depend on the individual patient. The writer does mention that bringing a partner program into standard practice “presents some challenges” due to the need for training, and that the researchers are looking at ways to help people learn to identify melanomas without reinforcement by physicians. This is enough to earn a satisfactory rating.
The newsworthy results in this study are the measurements of confidence levels and embarrassment among partners helping with self examinations for melanomas. The story does acknowledge this here:
The researchers previously found that skin cancer survivors and their partners could be trained to spot potentially cancerous moles by doing skin exams. The new report shows that during the two years, those same people had increasing confidence in their skills, with no increase in embarrassment or discomfort.
However, this is proceeded by a sentence that states melanoma survivors “may want to enlist partners to help search their bodies for suspicious looking moles,” suggesting that this is a new approach. In reality, this research focused on a psychological aspect of a previously established practice. It is OK for some science to be looking at small details rather than looking for big breakthroughs, but the news story should not puff up small results for big headlines.
A news release from Northwestern University is likely the spark responsible for the news story, but the writer has clearly contacted the lead researcher independently and included information beyond what is written in the news release.