Seeing Through Exaggeration: It’s Overdue

December 3, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Awards and Recognition, NAHSL Annual Meeting 2012, Professional Development | Leave a comment

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Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz gave a fascinating and prescient presentation about how facts or lack of facts in medical messaging drives the role of hype in medical media.  Their talk centered on improving communication when delivering information on medical subjects.   Their formula for good information for the public is:  facts and values equal good decisions.  Unfortunately facts don’t always show up accurately in medical messaging.   And once more when dealing with the media (politics comes to mind) hype plays a big part in generating fear and false hope. 

One example they gave was a website called brainscans.com which promotes getting a brain scan in order to know your risk of brain maladies even though there is no evidence that brain scans eliminate that risk. 

Their fix for this over-hype and exaggeration is to promote healthy skepticism.  And as in all things of this world, it all comes down to the money.  Companies use hype and exaggeration to sell products and raise funds.    According to the authors’ research, much of the hype comes from press releases which are mostly accepted as gospel by media outlets, which use them to get their news stories.  And of course news stories generate revenue.  By using a broad definition of disease in reporting stories, undue concern is raised.  And with heightened concern, the drug companies, device manufacturers, researchers and advocacy groups benefit from more people sick.    Media presents a “diagnosis” then expands disease symptoms and risk factors.  This leads to an up and down cycle:  Have to make people aware that they are sick but we have the cure but then again there are risks using that cure….

We are cautioned by the authors to question presented statistics to make sure that they are truly representing what the advertising is trying to tell us.  Those large percentage improvements may turn out to be truly miniscule upon review. 

The solution by the presenters is a skeptical media that questions before promoting a solution.  And this they outline and explore in their book, Know Your Chances, Understanding Health Statistics which explains how to read through all the hype and made good information accessible to the public.  One innovation they have come up with is the use of a Drug Fact Box that presents important information in an easily read format, much like the nutrition information now used on food products.  The FDA is looking into adopting the use of the Drug Fact Box at some time in the future.  Read more about what the authors have to say at: 

How a charity oversells mammography.  Woloshin S. Schwartz, LM.  BMJ 2012 Aug 2; 345: e5132 doi: 10.1136/bmj.e5132.

Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study.  Schwartz LM, Woloshin S. Andrews A. Stukel TA BMJ 2012 Jan 27; 344: d8164 doi: 10.1136.bmj.d8164.

Communicating uncertainties about prescription drugs to the public: a national randomized trial.  Schwartz LM, Woloshin S.  Arch Intern Med. 2011 Sep 12; 171(16): 1463-8.

Promoting healthy skepticism in the news: helping journalists get it right.  Woloshin S, Schwartz LM, Kramer BS.  J Natl Cancer Inst 2009 Dec 2; 101(23): 1596-9. Epub 2009 Nov 20.

Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic?  Woloshin S, Schwartz, LM, Casella SL, Kennedy AT, Larson RJ.  Ann Intern Med 2009 May 5; 150(9): 613-8.

 Lynn Sabol, MLS
Waterbury Hospital
Health Center Library

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