Every day, journalists report on medical claims made by supposed “experts.” But we shouldn’t take their advice at face value, as more evidence points to how health care news fails to properly inform the public.
Digital Journal — Recently, Katie Couric and CBS Evening News warned viewers about the dangers of Lasik vision correction procedures in a segment chillingly called The Dark Side of Eye Surgery. It included the requisite detractor doctor saying Lasik “is a terrible idea.” Another doctor claims the surgery “produces overwhelming joy and happiness.” The story outlines the risks and problems associated with this surgery, all within two minutes.
But Gary Schwitzer, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, wasn’t happy with the CBS report. As publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, he reviews medical news for balance and accuracy, rating articles on a scorecard to determine if reports conveyed the most thorough info possible. Schwitzer had a few issues with The Dark Side of Eye Surgery:
“It fails to make clear that the Lasik procedure is elective and expensive… It fails to cite facts regarding what may be the most important measure of surgical success/patient satisfaction: The ability to see well without glasses… The segment fails to describe which side effects is permanent, and what proportion are disabling.”
CBS is not alone in this sharp critique. Schwitzer and his team of reviewers have looked at 544 stories from major news outlets between April 2006 and April 2008. To receive a satisfactory score, journalists had to quote an independent expert uninvolved in the research and they had to attempt to report potential conflicts of interest. Schwitzer says half the stories failed to meet these two criteria.
HealthNewsReview was created to help improve the public’s “critical thinking of some of the claims that are made in health care and made in health care journalism,” Schwitzer said in an interview.
There is good reason for a site like Schwitzer’s, especially in an era where media “experts” are suspect of being in the pocket of major corporations.
Too often, medical professionals appear in radio and TV broadcasts to debunk a health care claim, only to be later unmasked as the recipient of corporate handouts. For instance, all four experts on a radio news program combating links between antidepressants and suicide were found to have financial ties to antidepressant manufacturers. Also, the radio show itself had received funding from Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac.
In other cases, "breaking medical news" reported in scientific journals can sometimes be tailored to promote drugs from companies that have massive sales and PR budgets, according to a book called 'Our Daily Meds'. According to author and New York Times reporter, Melody Petersen, pharmaceutical companies have a two-pronged approach; go after consumers on one front, and doctors on the other.
In a very startling statistic, Petersen says there is one sales rep for every six physicians in the United States. Petersen explained the relevance of this stat in an interview with ABC:
"There's half a million drug-sponsored meetings or parties or dinners for physicians every year," she said. "It's hundreds per day of these parties that the drug industry sponsors for physicians where the physicians are wined and dined. Actually here in the US, often they're also given a nice cheque for $500 just for attending. And then the drug industry will hire another physician to lecture them on why they should be prescribing one of these new drugs."
This is a very big problem, but some States seem to be trying to do something about it, going so far as to suggest a ban on gifts for doctors, saying "pharmaceutical and medical device industries give gifts, meals and other freebies to doctors to influence what they prescribe." Sounds like the industry needs a prescription for objectivity.
Supposedly independent experts are truly just sneaky marketers trying to win over a gullible public. Medical professionals are held in such high regard, and their credentials are so rarely questioned, that it isn’t difficult to hoodwink lazy journalists who fail to dig deep into the expert’s pockets. Every reporter should be wary of a doctor who is so passionate about debunking health claims, it comes off as strangely aggressive.
Every media outlet should be using their built-in bullshit-detector, as Hemingway wrote. When academic department chairs have ties to industry leaders and major drug manufacturers, the eyebrows should be raised. Raised way up. When health care experts appear on 24/7 news stations to promote the latest gastric bypass surgery, viewers should take their announcements with a large bear-hug of salt. For too long medical expertise has blared into our living rooms without question, without argument. Only now, as sites like HealthNewsReviews.org bring the truth to light, does the public see how jaded every news article can be.
Luckily, the medical establishment wants to fight this problem, too. The Canadian Medical Association Journal found researchers who get funding from drug and medical-device manufacturers are up to 3.5 times as likely to proclaim their study drug or medical device works than are researchers without this funding.
And a Yale University School of Medicine study several years ago found that “financial relationships among industry, scientific investigators, and academic institutions are widespread. Conflicts of interest arising from these ties can influence biomedical research in important ways.”
Critically analyzing health care news is one of the most valuable actions we can take as news readers and viewers. More often than not, our bodies — and our bodies of knowledge — depend on it.