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Quick fix health reporting

An article in today's News & Record by columnist Jeri Rowe demonstrates exactly the sort of health reporting that convinces people to believe in miracle cures and quick fixes.

The focus of the column is prostate cancer. In 2006, Rowe writes, Bob Page, the founder of Replacements Ltd., was diagnosed with the disease. Page used the internet to research treatment options, according to the article, and found High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, or HIFU.

HIFU is available in Europe, Asia, Canada and Mexico, Rowe writes, but not in the United States, because it has not yet obtained approval from the "Federal Drug Administration" – presumably Rowe meant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

So Page traveled to Mexico to have the treatment. In Rowe's words:

During a three-hour surgery in Cancun, Burlington urologist Brian Cope zapped Page's cancer. Page flew down on a Friday, had the surgery Saturday, flew back Sunday, and by Monday, he was back to work.

He hardly told anyone about the whole ordeal – until then.

Page says he hasn't had any of the scary side effects. He feels good, and today, two months after his surgery, he finds himself thinking, "Oh yeah, I did have that."

The "scary side effects" Page mentions are the problems associated with current prostate cancer treatments available in North Carolina: incontinence and impotence.

But it cannot be emphasized enough that every treatment for every disease has shortcomings and side effects. There are no miracle cures. Journalists have a responsibility to report those problems every time they write about medical treatments because holding out false hope does a disservice to readers.

HIFU is especially easy to research because the British National Health Service has a great organization called the National Institute for Clinical Excellence which conducts comparative effectiveness research and produces handy consumer guides on different treatment options.

NICE, as the research organization is called, says that while HIFU is a viable treatment the "effects of HIFU for prostate cancer on quality of life and long-term survival remain uncertain." Common side effects include urinary tract infections, incontinence, bowel perforation and erectile dysfunction.

I hope Page is completely cured. I hope he never has any side effects. But we have enough drug companies and medical device makers selling miracles to an unsuspecting public. They do not need the help of unquestioning reporters.

5 Comments

  1. Adam Searing

    September 25, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Health reporting – as I think this example shows – really has to be careful when using the compelling personal story that is so often used to illustrate particular points. If we all got particular treatments because some neighbor we know has had a good experience with that procedure, that probably wouldn’t be a very efficient or effective way of deciding what works well and what doesn’t.

  2. Kate

    September 25, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Health reporting had to walk an amazingly fine line. The story I think of first now is the one that was reported as “a positive attitude makes you less likely to get cancer.” The headline and bulk of the article did not mention that they survey that was done was completed after people had been diagnosed with cancer and could have possibly colored their response.

  3. Adam Linker

    September 25, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Reporting is not easy, especially health reporting. It’s impossible to be an expert in every medical field. But for some reason the skepticism that journalists bring to political and business reporting is oftentimes not applied when it comes to “breakthrough” drugs or technology.

    Here are some great tips to keep in mind when reading or reporting health stories:

    http://www.healthnewsreview.org/how_we_rate.php

  4. […] that the Progressive Pulse picks up on N&R columnist Jeri Rowe’s recent piece on Replacement Inc. founder Bob Page’s […]

  5. […] more dubious treatment being performed on at least some NC patients for prostate cancer Leonhardt didn’t mention was […]