Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oversimplified Diagnosis

This week I'm flying solo on my look at something that could use a little more detail in the news.

I have no doubt medical news is vastly important to provide. It can open a window into research happening close to home and around the world and it can inform about how to possibly stave off disease.

A lot of the time (especially in television news) the important information gets lost in profiles of disease survivors or fighters with slight mention about where to go for more information or prevention detail. The rest of the time you get a scary headline and scant detail about the true impact for you. This doesn't mean the constant research occurring or the studies being produced are misleading; that's for the doctors and scientists to decide. But without reporters going over all the research how can people be given an accurate story?

The latest to irk me was a headline about cell phones giving brain cancer to kids. The story mentions "...a 5.2-fold elevated risk of malignant brain tumour in children who begin using mobile phones before the age of 20 years..." but doesn't mention what you're multiplying 5.2 by. If the risk was one in 10-million it's not much of an increased risk. A one in five risk and now we're warranted with scary headlines.

People should know that cell phone use and the developing brain of teens is being studied and perhaps the research bears out a real risk but this story doesn't give that an accurate explanation. It also gets bogged down in stats about how many 12-19 year-old Canadians
use cell phones.

The trouble is; there are a lot of frightening headlines that seem misleading once you read through the whole story.

This one about alcohol and prostate cancer talks about the increased risk of developing the cancer but the last line of the story quotes one of the study's authors as follows: "This is just saying that (prostate cancer) is just another thing to be concerned about if you're a heavy drinker." So does drinking increase the risk of prostate cancer? It may. But so does a long list of other things.

Something else that can get lost in the lead idea of a story is context. This story about the number of Canadians living with cancer fails to mention if this kind of statistic has been tracked for decades, it doesn't show how the information proves more people are getting sick and how about some common sense: Canada's population is as large as ever and we're living longer than ever before. Wouldn't more people simply mean more of everything, including cancer?

One blog I'm in the habit of following is that of Mark Hamilton. He's got some of his own thoughts on how reporters can stop fear-mongering or burying the fact this study or that one might not really prove an increase in your chance of getting sick. He breaks down the basic formula for a medical story that caught his eye. (For those clicking on that link; pun intended.)

A book I recommend to anyone working in news, interested in medical stories or just plain interested in medicine is "Selling Sickness." It's more about prescription drugs and the advertising from drug companies but it gets into talk of drug studies. The studies can sometimes talk about increased risk but gloss over the fact the original risk was very small. A lot of that can not only be applied to any studies you see from drug companies but also medical stories. It goes for drug ads you might catch on American TV.

Canadian TV too if Conrad VonFinkenstein looks around for easy money:

"Moreover, the CRTC chairman said new sources of revenue -- such as allowing U.S.-style drug ads -- could be part of the solution. At present, those type of ads are not allowed in Canada."

That kind of knowledge is doubly important when a lot of medical news is just drug studies and spin from companies anyway.

My rant against fear-mongering headlines, about studies that sometimes mean very little, now done I hope this allows someone else to read such stories with a more discerning eye. And I'd hope reporters spend a few minutes either digging through the facts and figures of medical studies and reports or explaining to their editors and producers why the story isn't actually a story.

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