Medical miracle breakthrough in the news? Not so fast. . .

You know that photogenic and charming medical “expert” who is trotted out during your breakfast hour newscasts to explain the latest health buzz?  The medical miracle breakthrough that gets a full page spread in the Sunday paper? The CBS television show 60 Minutes gushing over the Kanzius cancer cure machine?  How can you tell if these news stories are on the level?

The simple answer: you can’t. In fact, as the savvy medical journalism watchdogs over at Health News Review warn:

“Every time you think you’ve seen the worst use of media coverage of health topics, something lower pops up.”

For example, here’s how HNR evaluated a “news” story on ABC’s Good Morning America about an off-label unapproved use of laser treatment for toenail fungus:

“The advantages were unsubstantiated, the harms unstated, and the effectiveness exaggerated. Promotion of an unapproved off-label use of laser treatment that has no published study results available. Disease mongering at its worst. Millions of us ‘suffering in silence’ with toenail fungus? Gag me.”

HNR makes the following assessment of the laser treatment news story:  

“We’re told that the laser maker says it’s 88% effective.  What does that mean?  88% never have a problem with toenail fungus again?  88% get one treatment and that’s it?  What happens to the other 12%?  The network gave almost five minutes of airtime to this story; they could have given more meaningful evidence.  Success is not necessarily the same as the proclaimed cure. The ad – er, story – tells us:

  • ABC said this was “news for tens of millions of you out there right now.” If you’re going to do a story on this topic – and it’s hard to avoid given how much we spend on it – check out False Start on a Laser Remedy for Fungus, the recent New York Times story for comparison. ABC’s segment wasn’t even in the ballpark.” 
  • “About half of us over the age of 50 are struggling with this problem.” Struggling? Really? Enough to warrant a $1,200 treatment ($120 per toe) that is NOT covered by insurance?
  • ABC profiled just one woman: “Meghan, like millions of Americans, has had her toe fungus for 15 years. It’s unsightly, embarrassing. And like others, she suffered in silence, not wanting to talk about it.” Millions of us like poor Meghan – suffering in silence? But not silent any longer – thanks to almost five minutes of network news time.
  • The treatment’s just been introduced, but it’s already used by many podiatrists, but more testing is needed. But the story didn’t give any warnings about such proliferation of non-FDA approved uses of technologies.”
And this is precisely why the Health News Review website should be your first stop whenever you read or watch or listen to any “medical breakthrough” being reported in the media. HNR rates media reports according to the following 10 assessment criteria:
  • What’s the total cost (of the treatment, product, procedure, test)?
  • How often do benefits occur?
  • How often do harms occur?
  • How strong is the evidence?
  • Is this condition exaggerated?
  • Are there alternative options?
  • Is this really a new approach?
  • Is it available to me?
  • Who’s promoting this?
  • Do they have a conflict of interest?

Health News Review awarded the toenail fungus “news” story on Good Morning America a total score of zero out of a possible nine Satisfactory points.  And that 60 Minutes story on the Kanzius machine to cure cancer?  It rated just one point out of nine on their ranking scale. HNR explained:

“Should a credible news program like 60 Minutes devote so much attention to this story about a promising but completely unproven technique for ‘curing all cancers’? There are several reasons the answer should be NO.

“The technique is not available for human use. It is in fact at least four years away from human trials. The segment should have reported whether the researchers interviewed have a financial or other interest in the Kanzius procedure.

“Other cancer treatment options are mentioned only in a glancing way and in the most negative light – and without indicating that many cancers are treatable and sent into remission with current techniques.

“The 60 Minutes story has elements that make it appealing as an act of infotainment: a lone-wolf outsider who can cure cancer with pie pans and hot dogs, a man motivated by his desire to help ‘hollow-eyed kids’ with cancer, and hopeful researchers with impressive institutional affiliations, including a Nobel laureate said to have turned from skeptic to believer by the time he died from cancer.

“But good stories don’t always make good journalism. This is such a case.”

Bookmark Health News Review for expert independent help and criteria to help consumers to evaluate all medical journalism reports on treatments, tests, procedures or products.

For more on developing a critical eye when evaluating medical news, read these two essays in Heart Sisters:

See also:

And if you still haven’t had enough, check out this backgrounder on how to figure out scientific research reporting at Nagging 101.

8 thoughts on “Medical miracle breakthrough in the news? Not so fast. . .

  1. This has really opened my eyes. We tend to stand around the water cooler at work and say: “Hey, did you see 60 Minutes last night?” as if whatever we see or read or hear in the media is gospel truth instead of potentially twisted, incomplete, industry-funded half-truth.

    This is profoundly important for consumers to learn how to filter the media they’re exposed to. Thanks for the helpful and educational links to these media watchdog sites too.

  2. I too appreciate the helpful links you’ve given us.

    We are so bombarded with information that it’s tough to filter out what’s true, what’s not true, or what’s just sensational enough to make for a good headline. Media Doctor and Health News Review are excellent not only for blowing the whistle, but for also educating consumers about what WE should be looking for in ALL advertising, not just drug company ads.

    Thx for this.

  3. Medical breakthrough indeed! You need only to read the front covers of the gossip rags to find out the “latest” medical miracles glaring out at us.

    Looks like even the conservative press requires a large grain of salt before we can believe what we see or read. Thank you for this excellent cautionary reminder.

  4. It’s all about “More coming up after the break…” and “Stay tuned!” – to keep up those media ratings. The actual truth of the story, if there even is one, is buried beneath the catchy headlines… Just this afternoon a friend emailed me a link to a network “health news” non-story that was transparently patchy.

  5. Any ‘medical miracle breakthrough’ that’s blabbed about on TV breakfast shows is automatically lumped into the entertainment category, in my book. The public is so gullible – people marketing this stuff are laughing at us all the way to the bank. Don’t encourage them …

  6. I’ve worked for companies that produced video news releases. Basically any medical company can FILM AND PRODUCE their own news segment. They script and edit everything their experts say, they choose stock clips that make this look like an important issue, and they even write a narrator script. Then it’s sent out to news stations who have their reporters read the script over the filmed clips.

    So when you see this “latest breakthrough” junk on the nightly news, it isn’t just silly reporting or lazy journalism. It is literally a commercial imbedded in the news. I doubt that big shows like 60 Minutes use VNRs as-is, but it sounds like they might use them as jumping off points for some of their reports.

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