Health reporting on television is notoriously terrible. In fact, the excellent folks at Health News Review, an organization that recruits independent doctors and researchers to rate media stories, stopped reviewing television programs.
So this is not to pick on WRAL, which is a great station. I only point out this problem to illustrate a larger issue with health care reporting.
Yesterday WRAL ran a story claiming that a new vaccine developed by Duke University researchers could help extend the life of some brain tumor patients. The entire story was positive and included a personal anecdote from a golfer who seems to be benefiting from the treatments.
Now move to the press release from Duke about the vaccine. This thing is packed with critical qualifications. This quote, for example, seems relevant:
The data suggest that these responses are linked to increased survival time, “but the numbers are so small that we can not conclude this with any degree of certainty,” says Amy Heimberger, MD, co-lead investigator, from MD Anderson.
Oh. How small are the numbers? 18 patients. 18 people are getting the vaccine. That’s it. And remember, this quote is from the press release. It’s no where to be found in the news story.
And there’s also this gem at the end of the release:
Drs. Bigner, Heimberger and Sampson, along with Duke University and MD Anderson have potential conflicts of interest from consulting agreements, stock options and potential further licensing fees. Duke and MD Anderson have plans in place to manage any potential conflict of interest.
What kind of conflicts do these doctors have? What plans are in place to manage conflicts of interest? These are only a few questions that spring to mind for the intrepid reporter to ask.
Health stories are difficult to decipher, especially if you aren’t a researcher. But if you are less critical than a press release, it’s time to rethink your coverage.