Issue 93, June 2006
Hype and Hope In The Media
We all want to be healthy and free of illness, so health stories tend to catch our attention easily, particularly if we have an illness or know someone who does. Health topics are some of the most commonly reported subjects in the media and a lot of people use them as a source of information about health. Newspaper and magazine editors and radio and television producers are in the business of telling stories and they often sensationalise information to grab our attention and get bigger audiences. Journalists may also simplify complex and scientific health information to make it more readable and appealing, and fit it into a few sentences. In doing so, they may oversimplify, take information out of context or get it wrong.
It pays therefore to ask yourself a few key questions while ‘digesting’ and making sense of health stories in the media, to work out how much you can rely on them and whether you need to find out more. This article highlights some of the questions you might like to consider, and gives suggestions about following up health stories that interest you, or that worry you. The emphasis is on stories about medicines, but the comments apply equally to most health stories.
Where did the story appear?
As we all know, some newspapers and magazines are more inclined to be sensational than others. Similarly, some television programs are well known for exaggerating the facts. When you read or hear a story, thinking about the publications or program’s record for balanced or sensational coverage can help you decide on its likely credibility. Be aware that most journalists, including most ‘health reporters’, do not have health training or a scientific background. Articles by health reporters, who write regularly on health and medical topics, can probably be relied upon more than articles written by other reporters.
Where did the story come from?
Stories about medicines can come from many sources, including articles in medical journals, talks at medical conferences and company or organisation promotional material. Knowing the source of a story can help you make judgements about its likely credibility. Articles in medical journals are usually reliable, because their articles have to meet very high standards in order to be published. However, just because a story quotes a reputable medical journal doesn’t guarantee that the reporting of the story will be accurate or give the full picture.
When considering stories — based on talks given at medical conferences, be aware that the researchers may be talking about the early stages of their research into a potential new medicine. At this stage the findings may look promising but it is still far too early to be certain. In the course of time, many potential medicines don’t meet their early expectations, and many never make it to commercial production.
Also look out for ‘advertorials’, advertisements dressed up as stories. Advertorials are designed to sell products, so they usually mention only the medicine’s benefits. They often include a testimonial, a personal success story about the medicine by a person, sometimes a celebrity, who is paid to tell their story. Sometimes the words ‘advertisement’ will appear in small letters at the top. Advertorials usually appear in magazines, but they are also increasingly appearing on television and radio talk shows. They should be taken with a large grain of salt. Sometimes the source of the story is not revealed. However, you may be able to make an intelligent guess by ‘reading between the lines’.
What about the experts?
Stories about medicines often interview doctors or other experts to get their opinion of the treatment. Such comments are usually designed to give the story greater credibility. We can trust an expert speaker if they are an independent expert or speaking on behalf of a reputable organisation. However, sometimes the expert being interviewed has ties to the company selling the medicine. This is something to watch out for but it may not be always obvious from the way the story is reported.
When will it be available?
Many announcements about new medicines are made long before they have been approved, so they may still have to undergo 5 -10 years of testing and approval before they become available, assuming they make it through both processes.
What’s known about it?
We tend to believe that ‘newer is better’. However, when it comes to medicines, this belief can be wrong. The testing process for medicines involves testing on relatively small numbers of people, so not all the medicine’s benefits and risks are known when it is released for sale. Some problems only become clear when the medicine has been approved and used by large numbers of people for several years. An example of this situation is the arthritis medicine Vioxx, which was withdrawn from sale in October 2004, when it became apparent that long-term use may lead to heart attacks and strokes in some patients.
Does it give the full picture?
All medicines have benefits as well as risks (side effects). When deciding with your doctor or pharmacist to use a new medicine it is important to weigh up its benefits and risks. Stories in the media that focus only on the benefits, or only on the risks, are not giving you the full picture; similarly those that overstate the benefits or understate the risks. Take with another grain of salt reports that say, or imply, that a medicine has no side effects. Stories about new medicines often overstate the importance of the medicine, and don’t mention its limitations. For example, stories often announce a new cure for cancer, without specifying for whom the treatment is suitable and what the success rate is, making it sound like it will work for everyone with cancer. In reality, such ‘cures’ are usually suitable only for very small numbers of people, because they can be used for only one type of cancer and only under specific circumstances. Many ‘new medicines’ are not really new. Many are duplicates or refinements of existing medicines. While small improvements in medicines may be useful, true medical ‘breakthroughs’ are, unfortunately, very rare.
Deciding whether a particular medicine is right for you, means weighing up many considerations to work out whether the benefits you can expect outweigh the possible risks. It is hard to get the full picture from a short story in the media. The media can alert you to new developments, but it is important to follow up the story with other reliable sources of information, such as
· Your GP or Specialist
· Pharmacist (Chemist)
· Naturopath (if an alternative medicine)
· Manufacturer of the medicine
Acknowledgement: “Contact” AHDA (Vic) Inc- Issue 27 May/June 2005