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Using a single patient anecdote, ABC News hails DNA fertility test as ‘breakthrough’

Rating

2 Star

Categories

How a breakthrough new fertility test is offering hope for families who have suffered miscarriages

Our Review Summary

ABC News pursues a story idea they heard about in a special issue of National Geographic magazine and calls it a “breakthrough fertility test.” But what ABC delivers is one satisfied success story. We’re given no broader context other than the vague reference to the fact that it hasn’t been tried “on many” women. How many? And with what results? How can the audience judge whether the breakthrough label fits in this case? They can’t.

 

Why This Matters

Yes, couples with infertility problems are desperate for answers.  But that is why context and evidence is so important – not merely single anecdote success stories that may not be representative of the experiences of other women who have been similarly treated.

There are many causes of infertility, of which recurrent pregnancy loss (repeated miscarriage) is only one.  Roughly 70% of women who have 2 or more miscarriages eventually have a successful pregnancy, but for the rest, the inability to carry a pregnancy to term can be devastating.  Couples faced with recurrent pregnancy loss deserve to have accurate information on what is known, and not known, about new treatments, so that their distress is not further amplified by unrealistic expectations.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This is a tossup. In the online text piece there was no discussion of costs, nor of whether insurers were likely to reimburse for the procedure.

If online readers clicked on the video at the top of the piece – and sat through a Ford commercial or some other ad – they would hear that the testing can cost from $800 to $1,000 and is not covered by insurance.

But we still have questions. There is no discussion online or on-the-air about what the total package of treatment – including the implantation and followup – costs.

So in the end, we rate this confusion as unsatisfactory.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

No information is provided about how many women have been treated with this approach – only that it is “not many.”  So there is no context for readers (or ABC’s viewers) to be able to judge what the likelihood of benefit is.  They hear only one satisfied success story.

Biomarkers for endometrial receptivity have been under study for over a decade, but there have been few studies to validate specific biomarkers such as DNA testing.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The way ABC addressed potential harms is peculiar.

The online story concludes:

One risk of the procedure many women may not take into account is the emotional effects of it not working and you still miscarrying, Shepherd said. It is a new process and important to go over the risks of the procedure — which can vary per person — with your health care provider.

OK, that’s one risk.  Are there others?  This excerpt states that it’s “important to go over the risks” – plural.  If they are so important, why wouldn’t they be mentioned – along with some estimate of how often they are likely to occur – in a nationally broadcast and online news story?

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The plural of anecdote is not data.  And we learn of only one anecdote.  No context is provided about how many times this approach has been tried and by how many physicians in how many settings.

The on-air demonstration of how the soil jars and the flower are exactly like the uterus seemed like something out of a fifth grade science class.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story did explain that “the ideal candidates are women who have had three or more miscarriages or women over 40, but emphasized that the test is not for everyone and infertility is a spectrum.” And it offered an estimated of 12% of couples with infertility problems.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

We’ll award a hesitant satisfactory score for this criterion.

The fertility specialist who treated the woman profiled in the story was interviewed.  And so was another OB-Gyn, but no explanation was given of where she works or why she was chosen to be interviewed.

So we don’t know if she’s connected in some way with the fertility center in question.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The fertility test in question was called a breakthrough.  But readers and viewers are given no evidence-based comparison between it and the countless other methods to try to help infertile couples.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The online text piece doesn’t offer any information about how often this approach has been tried – or in how many settings.  Only that it hasn’t been done “on many” women.

Does that mean five times, 50?  In one setting, in 10?

Neither readers nor viewers are given appropriate context.

There is little published information on DNA testing for endometrial receptivity and there is no test available for clinical use to my knowledge.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

Basic questions that were never addressed:

  1. Why is it a breakthrough?  What made it a breakthrough?
  2. How is it novel?
  3. How does it compare with other methods used to address infertility?

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

Again, we’ll award a generous grade of Satisfactory here.

ABC acknowledges that it based its story on a National Geographic special.

But there is no evidence that it copied from a news release.

Total Score: 3 of 10 Satisfactory

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