This Guardian story touts a new approach for detecting and diagnosing prostate cancer which, it claims, is safer and more effective than the commonly used methods. The story states that researchers used up to 200 patients to gauge the efficacy of shear wave elastography (SWE) — an approach currently used in diagnosing breast cancer and liver disease.
Readers are left clueless as to what the research yielded, other than vague claims of SWE exceeding the value of other named approaches. The story fails to describe the research, to quantify the results, to mention costs or harms of this approach, or to offer any really independent comment on the work. Egregiously, it borrows heavily from a university news release.
Prostate cancer is a leading cancer among men in the United Kingdom, as well as elsewhere in the world. The major dilemma is that some cancers are very slow-growing and, in some cases, present a minor problem, while other fast-growing forms can be life-threatening and require immediate action. Telling the difference between the two forms can be difficult, so a new method that might do so would be a boon to public health. Sadly, this story fails to provide anything more than hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims. Readers deserve more.
The only mention of costs in this Guardian story is the following sentence, “The method is non-invasive and cheaper than current detection techniques.” But the story offers no information to back up that statement. There’s no mention of the current costs for the available screening approaches and there’s no estimate of what this new technique might cost patients.
The story lists the supposed benefits of this new approach, compared to existing methods used for detection and delineating prostate cancer. A source is quoted as saying, “Our new method is far more accurate and also allows us to identify the difference between cancerous and benign tissue in the prostate without the need for invasive surgery.”
But the story offers no data or information that would quantify the supposed improvements over existing screening mechanisms.
There is no mention of any harms that might come from use of this new approach. And while the story claims that the new technique — shear wave elastography (SWE) — is non-invasive, there are clear harms that can come from false negatives or false positives with any screening technique.
The story says virtually nothing about how the research was conducted, which would offer readers some insight into the quality of the study the story is based on. There’s no mention of whether the study was peer-reviewed, where the results were published, or what kind of clinical trial was done — all key factors in establishing the quality of the evidence.
The story implies that this test ought to be used in all men in the UK as a screening test for prostate cancer, which may find many false positive results. It also doesn’t point out that despite its prevalence, some types of prostate cancer are very growing and may not require treatment. Many more men die with prostate cancer than die because of prostate cancer.
All of the sources in the story were the same sources in the news release.
There is no mention of potential conflicts of interest among the researchers, even though this is a new technology which, if successful, could profit the researchers/inventors.
The story does mention several current methods of detecting and diagnosing prostate cancer — the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test, a digital rectal exam (DRE), the use of MRI imaging, and an invasive biopsy, which are all alternatives to this new test. The story also points out the shortcomings of each of those approaches. However, this is a just-passing Satisfactory, since all of this information was taken directly from the university’s news release (see below).
While the story doesn’t explicitly deal with the availability of shear wave elastography (SWE), it’s fairly clear that the new approach is experimental, has only been used on no more than 200 patients, and would require larger clinical trials to prove its efficacy — all points that suggest that it may not be available to most patients now. It also states that, “SWE technology is already used in diagnosing breast cancer and liver diseases.”
If backed up by valid information, the discovery of a new approach to diagnosing prostate cancer, as well as delineating between fast- and slow-growing tumors would certainly justify doing a news story. But in this case, the writer provides little to no substantive information that would allow readers to benefit from this offering. Far better to have not done a story rather than offer this little.
The story is peppered with slightly modified versions of statements from the university’s news release. A slight change here or there in both quoted and paraphrased statements isn’t enough to qualify this as independent reporting. The news release–while boosterish–at least included where the research was published, a fact missing in the news story.
The release said: “Each carries significant problems. The PSA test are not offered as standard treatment and the results can be unreliable. The DRE is not good at identifying which cancers are benign and which need treatment. MRI scans are not available across the country and cannot always give a definitive answer. The biopsy is invasive, carries risk of infection and is expensive.”
Which the story parrots: “Each carries problems. PSA results can be unreliable; a DRE is not good at identifying which cancers are benign and which need treatment; MRI scans cannot always give a definitive answer; while a biopsy carries a risk of infection and is expensive.”