Problems with Health Care News Coverage

Here’s a great lesson in information literacy relating to the ways that health research is reported in the news media. This originates with a study in the Journal of American Medical Association, A Guide to Reading Health Care News Stories by Gary Schwitzer. Here’s some notes from it highlighting reporting problems (and an On the Media Story below about it). When you read about health news, you can use as rules of thumb to catch any potential reporting problems.
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“Risk Reduction Stated in Relative, Not Absolute, Terms”
A 50% improvement may mean going from 2 out of 100 people to 1 out of 100 people. Yes, 50% but not really a huge improvement.

“Failure to Explain the Limits of Observational Studies”
Observational studies are types of studies where people who take one action (eat more apples) have a particular result (have less heart attacks). The major limit is that the action may NOT actually cause the result. These studies can be useful as a first step, but more research is often needed to REALLY understand what is happening

“The Tyranny of the Anecdote”
Anecdotes are single stories used to illustrate a point. Often, these stories are not representative of all experiences. They often ignore individuals who drop out of studies. Reporters must give appropriate context.

“Single-Source Stories and Journalism Through News Releases”
Any time a story uses only one source (like one study) this is a problem because scientists never rely on just one study. This becomes more of a problem (biased info) when the reporter is relying on a press release from a drug manufacturer or other company.

“Stories About Screening Tests That Do Not Explain the Tradeoffs of Benefits and Harms”
There are instances where screenings can find false positives (a test that finds a disease in someone who does NOT have the disease). False positives can lead to addition (often more invasive) tests. News stories that discuss disease screenings should include harms of these screenings.

“Fawning Coverage of New Technologies”
We like flashy new technologies, but often, the new technologies are only slightly better (or not better) than existing (less flashy) treatments. We should be wary about stories that go crazy over the glitzy new approach without comparing it to existing approaches.

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Here is the story for On the Media about this report:

THE WORRIED WELL WHIPPED INTO A FRENZY

One Study Proves Nothing

This short video is a mini-lesson in information literacy. This is a 4 minute lesson on understanding scientific studies. Remember, one study does not definitively prove anything. In order to have a strong understanding of a subject, we need multiple studies showing one or more results. When the news media reports a finding, they often fail to put the full study in context.

Not all scientific studies are created equal – David H. Schwartz


Every day, we are bombarded by attention grabbing headlines that promise miracle cures to all of our ailments — often backed up by a “scientific study.” But what are these studies, and how do we know if they are reliable? David H. Schwartz dissects two types of studies that scientists use, illuminating why you should always approach the claims with a critical eye.

Anti-Vaccine Parents Cause Measles Outbreak

I wanted to share this video from the NewsHour. We will be hosting a panel discussion about vaccines on Tuesday, April 29th, 12:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m., Library Lounge.

Measles outbreak sparks fear of resurgent diseases
Description from the NewsHour: “Recent outbreaks of measles on both the East and West Coasts highlight a larger story about how infectious diseases that had all but disappeared in the U.S. are now reappearing. Why are some of these diseases showing back up? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, about the reasons for these outbreaks.”

Are We a Nation of Medical Conspiracy Nuts?

Evidently, the answer is yes.

I came across this Salon article that talks about a new study of medical conspiracies (see We’re a nation of medical conspiracy nuts by Mary Elizabeth Williams). The study found that 49% of Americans believed in one medical conspiracy, and 18% believed in three or more.

These are the top medical conspiracies (and NONE of them are true!!).

–“The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program”

–“Doctors and government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders”

–“The FDA is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other disorders because of pressure from drug companies”

–“Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them”

–“Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump the dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment”

–“The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto is part of a secret program launched by the Rockefeller and Ford foundation to shrink the world’s population.”

You can find info about the original study here: Oliver & Wood, Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States 

The Year of Debunking!

BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel has declaried 2014 as the year of the “Viral Debunk” (see his article, 2014 Is The Year Of The Viral Debunk (The “Hoax Economy” gives way to a new breed of fact checking)).

He has declared (and we agree) that it is time to end the silly, crazy, and untrue hoaxes regularly spread online. Yes, we know we can’t stop them all, but we can work to counter them. This is a lesson in Information Literacy.

Alex Goldman & PJ Vogt discuss this on a recent episode of the TLDR podcast. I wanted to share in an effort to spread the word.

TLDR Podcast: Hey, Guess What? I Found Truth for Us

Description from the site: “Last fall, TLDR covered a bunch of hoaxes. Some we liked, most we didn’t. On this episode, we talk to Paulo Ordoveza and Adrienne LaFrance, a couple of people who have devoted themselves to trying to debunk the innumerable falsehoods flying around the internet.”