We were thrilled to see this story mention the costs of the treatment, its lack of FDA approval, and the fact that insurance won’t cover it. But that was just one sentence. The rest of the story is so heavily focused on the experiences of one patient who believes she was successfully treated through stem cells that readers would understandably be driven to dial up this doctor based on scant evidence, no real understanding of the potential benefits, no independent assessment of the treatment, no comparison to alternatives, and no mention of risks.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is very common. There are many out there who might be affected by this type of poor reporting.
Costs are presented here as is the fact that the treatment Is not covered by insurance, and so we are marking this as a passing rating. But the cost information is framed as if it’s a bargain: “costs less than $8,000” and is “well worth the price.” That’s language that has no place in a story about an unproven treatment.
There is no objective quantification of benefits here. Instead, the story allows the physician who is marketing this procedure to make unproven claims about the treatment, saying that “about two-thirds of his patients see COPD relief within several weeks to about five months, and that those results last for about a year.”
There are two big problems with a claim like this. First, the patient pool could be three patients, two of whom were treated successfully for a year. Second, the findings have no objective, independent measurement of improvement and no independent verification. No published studies. No peer review. Not even a group of collaborating physicians seeing the same results from different vantage points.
There is no mention of risks in the story. Instead, the story repeats claims of amazing results in one patient.
The story skirts any objective evidence – positive or negative – and opts instead to present unproven claims from the physician performing the treatments and the claims of one patient.
It says, helpfully, that stem cell treatment for COPD “isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or covered by health insurance,” but it should have explained why that is.
The story presents a single patient with severe symptoms, making it sound like everyone with COPD could become incapacitated unless they resort to this extreme, untested treatment. It also doesn’t mention that most COPD can be avoided by not smoking.
There are no independent sources in this story, and it would have benefited from them.
There is no real comparison of alternatives here. Stem cell therapy is the unproven treatment, and it is given all the air time. Traditional treatments for COPD are skipped or presented as failures in the case of one patient.
The story has too many vague sentences that give the treatment the aura of efficacy. The one relating to the treatment’s availability may be the most dangerous:
As Calick ran out of options, she sought help from Dr. David Borenstein in New York City. Borenstein, an integrative medicine physician, is one of numerous doctors in the world who is using stem cell therapy to treat various diseases.
Understandably, readers with COPD might be calling their doctor the next minute to make an appointment. There are three main problems with the way the treatment is presented in this part of the story. First of all, integrative medicine is a controversial topic in and of itself, as explained by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. Second, by saying that there are “numerous doctors in the world,” the story gives the impression that using stem cells to treat COPD is an established and now fully global practice, when, in fact, it may be three or it may be 3,000 doctors doing this. There’s very little evidence for the latter. Lastly, by saying “to treat various diseases,” the story misleads readers into believing that stem cells are a proven and established therapy for COPD and a range of diseases. In fact, as the FDA notes on its website:
FDA has approved only one stem cell product, Hemacord, a cord blood-derived product manufactured by the New York Blood Center and used for specified indications in patients with disorders affecting the body’s blood-forming system
There is no FDA-approved stem cell treatment for COPD or for nearly anything beyond the blood-related conditions that Hemacord is supposed to treat. And that’s because there is very little proof that stem cells are safe and effective treatments.
The story makes claims that this is a silver bullet for COPD, but it does not establish those claims. The main novelty here is the incredible naivete of the coverage.
We couldn’t find any specific news release that this story may have relied on, but since there are no independent sources, we can’t be sure that the story definitely wasn’t based on such a release. We’ll rule this Not Applicable. And we note that the story is clearly being used to promote the treatment center that is its focus.