Media Disservice to Public Understanding of Health and Medicine

By Marvin Ross

There exists an evil axis of reporters poorly trained in science and medicine, PR mavens and /researchers/universities/journals who feed off each other to present information to the public which can only be considered fake news. This article has been on my back burner for awhile but I’ve moved it up because of Dr Dawson’s last blog on the bad research and data mining on anti-depressants that he wrote about last.

I’m referring to the study that attempts to demonstrate that you are more likely to die if you take medication for your depression. Immediately after this appeared, we received an e-mail from a copy editor at a newspaper wishing that when papers write about stuff like this, they take the time to include comments from other experts who were not involved in the research. This is the report that we read although it has spread widely across North America. The lead author is not a psychiatric researcher but a professor of evolutionary psychology with an undergraduate degree in aerospace and then a legal degree.

What the copy editor suggested is what is supposed to happen but mostly does not. Anyone writing about current research should consult and quote someone not involved with the study in order to get a more objective view.

And the axis of evil is this. Researchers do their stuff and want to be recognized for their brilliance and their contributions to the good of society and (most important) to make it easier to get academic tenure and grants in the future. The PR people are anxious to get maximum press for their publication or university. In the case of universities, it looks good for their funding people and to show to alumni during fund raising. Reporters need a story and so often will simply reshape a press release into a news item.

If it is a breakthrough discovery in a laboratory petrie dish or mouse model, it gets hailed as “a new treatment is coming” and those with that disease become hopeful only to discover there is no new treatment. In the case of this particular study, all those who are anti-psychiatry will have more ammunition. I can’t find the figure but it is something like 20,000 promising therapeutic agents investigated to get one that is actually used and is on your pharmacy shelf. Those are the odds. We have all seen over the years the announced breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s Disease. In the mid 1980s, I wrote a book on Alzheimer’s called the Silent Epidemic and, for the most part, it is still relevant today. That is how many miraculous discoveries have appeared in that time.

Data mining is a common activity for some so that they can churn out papers. When I used to cover medical conferences, there was always at least one study by a Veterans Administration doctor who had culled through their huge store of medical records on mostly older male veterans and would manage to present their paper at the conference. The medical writers rarely took this work seriously.

Sadly, the public is inundated with stories which do nothing but raise false hope for sick people and cause many to rush out and waste money and endanger their lives. Think of the liberation theory for MS which turned out to be false but desperate people spent money and some died in pursuit of ridding themselves of their disease. For the most part, journalists do not specialize in a beat like medicine and health. Those who do  have a good grasp of science and knowledge of their subject matter. The others do not and  also do not have time to properly research.

I still laugh at this but a number of years ago, I started to freelance for a newspaper for doctors that had just launched. Their goal was to inform docs and sell advertising geared at doctors. One of the articles I wrote mentioned medical imaging and the editor called to ask me to define that. She was worried that doctors would not know what that meant but I told her that if they didn’t, they should not have a medical license. It means x-rays, CAT scans, etc. I gave up and told the publisher that his paper would not last. It lasted longer that I thought it would but it soon went out of business.

Take what you read on medicine in your local papers or media with a grain of salt.

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