Category Archives: Covering medical studies

Context, context, context: How journalists can avoid confusing readers with the latest research findings

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Whatiguana via Wikimedia Commons

Whatiguana via Wikimedia Commons

A recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association explored the responsibility that journals have to public health in reporting on the association – or lack thereof – between adverse events and different drugs, devices or vaccines.

Reporting on these kinds of studies is a mainstay for most regular health beat reporters: Every week a new study says that this drug may increase the risk of that condition, or that this device is no longer thought to increase the risk of some other condition.

While the editorial points out the journal’s responsibility in publishing these studies, so that doctors can discuss risks of treatment possibilities with their patients, what is a journalist’s responsibility on reporting these findings? And how do journalists avoid fatigue – and help their readers avoid fatigue – with findings that regularly contradict each other (eggs and heart disease, anyone?) or that have been reported dozens of times already but never go away (e.g., vaccines not causing autism)? Continue reading

President’s Corner: Stark reflects on conference, latest AHCJ developments

Karl Stark

About Karl Stark

Karl Stark, the assistant managing editor for business, health and science at The Philadelphia Inquirer, serves as president of the AHCJ board of directors.

Photo: Kris Hickman/AHCJAbraham Verghese

Photo: Kris Hickman/AHCJAbraham Verghese

Health Journalism 2015 made me smarter.

I’ll give two examples. First, there was the pleasure of listening to Abraham Verghese, physician and master storyteller, who works in the heart of Silicon Valley, the foundry of disruption, and is quite up to date.

But he also believes in the touch and the rituals of the physical exam. He insisted that we not discard the old values when we take up new gadgets. And he talked about how compassionate listening is a sublime thing and part of the ritual of being a doctor.

Listening is part of the ritual of being a journalist too, which probably explains why his talk was so inspiring.

Another highlight was listening to independent journalist Heather Boerner talk about how she crowd-sourced funding for her book, “Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science’s Surprising Victory Over HIV.” Boerner wrote 9,000 words for a $100 assignment. (There is a diagnosis for this: It’s called “journalism.”)

Read more …

Evidence-based reporting leads to award-winning exploration of robotic surgery

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Laura Beil

Robotic surgery has exploded in popularity in recent years, but is that because it actually improves patient outcomes over traditional surgery methods or because of marketing campaigns? That is one of the questions Laura Beil dove into in her award-winning story for Men’s Health, “What’s Wrong With Robotic Surgery?

In a story that involved months of reporting, Beil “used FDA and legal documents to explore concerns over the safety” of a prostate robotic surgery procedure and wove together her findings “into one concise narrative that engaged and informed Men’s Health readers.”

The reporting required FOI requests for adverse events from surgery (along with documents related to recent inspections and findings), legal documents from malpractice lawsuits and a class action suit against the manufacturer, and dozens of scientific studies to determine whether robotic surgery represented an advance in treatment.

Beil also describes the pushback after publication, adding that posting corporate responses online is a powerful way to expose unjustified pushback. Read about how she did her reporting.

Fellowships on medical research can take your reporting further

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

One of the best ways to become skilled in reporting on medical research is to immerse yourself in the experience of learning from the experts. That is precisely what two different fellowships offered by AHCJ will provide to applicants selected to participate in early fall.

The AHCJ-National Library of Medicine Health Journalism Fellowship and the AHCJ Fellowship on Comparative Effectiveness, supported by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, both provide travel expenses (within the U.S.), lodging and a food stipend for a full week of specialized learning. A membership (or renewal) to AHCJ is included as well.

These fellowships – basically immersive, hands-on workshops – are ideal for greenhorns and veterans. If you have never used a medical study to report a story, or if you read a half dozen of them each week, each of these provide an opportunity for you to take your reporting a step further. Continue reading

Use national statistics to localize findings, dig for enterprise stories

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

FreeImages.com/Shannon Pifko

FreeImages.com/Shannon Pifko

The National Center for Health Statistics published the latest data on 2014 births last month, and these reports can be unexpected gold mines for enterprise reporting.

The reports themselves are very dry – literally just the most recent statistics available on a particular data set with little to no analysis. However, that means most journalists will be reporting just that – the data without much analysis – while others can take some time to compare the numbers to past reports and look for trends. Continue reading

Conflict-of-interest concerns run both ways

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

GraphicStock

GraphicStock

Last month, we wrote about the back-and-forth between the New England Journal of Medicine and BMJ regarding conflict of interest policies for researchers who write commentaries or review articles. But conflicts of interest can show up in more than one way in covering medical research – including among journalists and journalism outlets themselves.

In a piece at HealthNewsReview.org, veteran health journalist Trudy Lieberman discusses the confusing and “unsavory” partnership between the Mayo Clinic and Twin Cities NBC affiliate KARE 11 in Minneapolis, where sports news is delivered from the “Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Sports Desk.” Continue reading

Scientific journals squabble over conflict-of-interest policies

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

doctor-with-megaphone-and-dollar-signA game of inside baseball is being played between two of the most venerated medical journals, and journalists may want to be sure they have a seat near the dugout. The game centers on one of the most important aspects of reporting on medical studies: identifying and making sense of researchers’ potential financial conflicts of interest.

In nearly every medical study, usually somewhere near the end or on the bottom of the first page, the authors declare any conflicts of interest or disclosures they may have that relate to the topic of the study. For editorials and commentaries, authors include the same, though many high-impact journals do not publish review articles and similar viewpoint-based papers by authors who have real or perceived conflicts of interest. Continue reading

Award-winning reporter explains how she investigated concerns over medical tests

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: Alison Young via Flickr

Photo: Alison Young via Flickr

The first thing most patients undergo when they have a complaint with an unknown source is a medical test.

It might be a screening test, which looks for the likelihood, or risk, that they have a particular condition, or it may be a diagnostic test, which actually diagnoses the condition.

But how well are these tests regulated, and how much can they tell us? Some are tried-and-true, with a solid base of research that makes them highly valuable in health care. But others may not be all they’re cracked up to be, or they may outright confuse patients and doctors, potentially leading to serious harms. Continue reading

What can reporters learn from the chocolate diet study hoax?

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: BlueRidgeKitties via Flickr

Photo: BlueRidgeKitties via Flickr

You’ve been fooled. You thought eating chocolate while dieting could help you shed the pounds faster because a study supposedly said so, and outlets all over the place covered it – but it was based on an intentionally faulty, hyped study.

At least, that’s the story that journalist John Bohannon, who was the first author, partial architect and promoter of the study, told in a viral io9 piece. The story exploded in social media as readers, journalists, scientists, ethicists and others argued over what he really proved, whether he should have done it and what lessons can be gleaned from the stunt. Continue reading

Journal’s retraction highlights value of keeping ‘a biostatistician in your back pocket’

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Science-retractedA now-retracted study in the journal Science once again reveals how important it is that journalists find appropriate expert sources to weigh in on findings before publishing stories about them.

The well-publicized paper, co-authored by Columbia researcher Donald Green and UCLA graduate student Michael LaCour, suggested that opponents of same-sex marriage were more likely to change their minds after talking with gay and lesbians canvassers. But, as Retraction Watch reported last week, LaCour faked the data. The journal initially posted an “Editorial Expression of Concern” but officially retracted the paper Thursday. Green had specifically requested the retraction, but LaCour does not agree with it. Continue reading