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.”
- 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:
- Medical Information Online: How To Tell The Trash From the Truth
- Medical Journalism Watchdog Slams Cardiac Polypill Hype
- “Sugar Is Good For You!” – And For the People Who Sell Sugar
- How To Set Up Your Own Phony Non-Profit As a Front For Big Business
- Doctors On The Take: How To Read The Fine Print in Medical Research Reports
And if you still haven’t had enough, check out this backgrounder on how to figure out scientific research reporting at Nagging 101.