Category Archives: Covering medical studies

The press release that fell and hit its head

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: BlatantNews.com via Flickr

Photo: BlatantNews.com via Flickr

Recently, an editor sent me a study to cover on concussions in teenagers.  At least, that’s what we thought the research was about, based on the title of its press release: “Teenagers who have had a concussion also have higher rates of suicide attempts.”

And I was excited to cover the study. Like gut bacteria and anything to do with chocolate or coffee or stem cells, concussion is a hot topic right now. That’s partly because brain scientists are just beginning to understand the lasting impacts of these sometimes subtle but probably cumulative injuries.

And they affect everybody from pro athletes to pee wee football players. So when parents and coaches see the word “concussion,” their thoughts rightfully turn to young athletes. About half of concussions in kids ages 8 to 19 are sports-related, according to a nationwide study of concussions published in 2010 in the journal Pediatrics.

The press release said the study found that kids who have had concussions were not only more likely to try to commit suicide, but to engage in other sorts of high-risk behaviors like taking drugs, stealing cars, setting fires and bullying.

The message here is that a kid who gets hit in the head too many times – presumably playing sports – might turn to drug abuse, self-injury and other sorts of criminal behaviors.  And that’s the way it was covered in the press. Continue reading

How to be smart about socioeconomic status in studies

Joe Rojas-Burke

About Joe Rojas-Burke

Joe Rojas-Burke is AHCJ’s core topic leader on the social determinants of health. To help journalists broaden the frame of health coverage to include factors such as education, income, neighborhood and social network, Rojas-Burke will hunt for resources, highlight excellent work and moderate discussions with journalists and experts. Send questions or suggestions to joe@healthjournalism.org or tweet to @rojasburke.

Image by Jay Reimer via flickr.

Image by Jay Reimer via flickr.

Medical study authors routinely claim to have “controlled” for socioeconomic status.

That kind of sweeping assertion should set off alarm bells. The authors probably haven’t come close to fully accounting for something as difficult to measure as a person’s place in the hierarchy of self-determination and power, neighborhood quality, working conditions, job security, income and wealth.

To assume otherwise is a mistake that can lead to misleading conclusions.

Consider, for example, a recent study in the journal Nature Medicine describing a genetic variation that might account for lower heart disease survival among African Americans. News coverage of the study caught my attention because whatever role genetics plays in the black/white disparity in heart disease, it’s probably small.

Some researchers have concluded that socioeconomic disadvantage is the most significant root of the problem, not genetic differences. And there is pretty good evidence that the traditional risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, obesity, smoking) account for all of the difference in heart disease mortality between black and white men in the United States, and most of the difference between black and white women. Continue reading

Researchers ‘owe’ the public information about financial ties #ahcj14

Blythe Bernhard

About Blythe Bernhard

Blythe Bernhard reports on health and medicine for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and serves on AHCJ's Right to Know and Contest committees. She attended Health Journalism 2014 as an AHCJ-Missouri Health Journalism fellow, a program supported by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

When writing about medical studies, reporters should always ask researchers about any financial relationships with drug companies or device manufacturers. That was one of the main lessons from a panel on conflicts of interest on Saturday at Health Journalism 2014.

Starting in September, sunshine provisions in the Affordable Care Act will require drug companies to disclose most payments to doctors. Some companies have already started to publicize their financial relationships with doctors. But most medical journal articles do not give accurate information on researchers’ potential conflicts of interest, said panelist Susan Chimonas of the Institute of Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University.

“You shouldn’t be uncomfortable asking these questions,” Chimonas said. “They owe you this information. They owe everyone this information.” Continue reading

Task force makes recommendations on cognitive screenings

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com, Practical Diabetology, Home Care Technology report and on HealthStyles Radio (WBAI-FM, NYC). She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College, NYC, and a co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued recommendations on Tuesday on the value of routine cognitive screening for older adults, concluding “the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for cognitive impairment.”

The task force said there was inadequate direct evidence on the benefits, and that several drug therapies and non-pharmacologic interventions have a “small effect” on the short term cognitive function measures in patients with mild to moderate dementia. They said the extent of clinically relevant benefit is uncertain. This is the same conclusion reached in previous assessments of the clinical benefit of cognitive screening.

They did find evidence that interventions targeted to caregivers have a small effect on caregiver burden and depression, but the scope of clinical relevance is still uncertain. This recommendation applies to universal screening with formal screening instruments in community-dwelling adults in the general primary care population who are older than 65 and have no signs or symptoms of cognitive impairment. Early detection and diagnosis of dementia through the assessment of patient-, family-, or physician-recognized signs and symptoms, some of which may be subtle, are not considered screening and are not the focus of this recommendation. Continue reading

Health reporter finds conflicts between medical evidence, personal experience

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Matthew CavanaughKaren D. Brown

When first diagnosed with breast cancer, journalist Karen D. Brown didn’t plan to write about it. But, as she met with surgeons, anesthesiologists and oncologists who presented her with treatment options, she found it was a lot more confusing than she had realized when reporting on the statistics.

All of a sudden I realized that my medical odyssey and the health news cycle had crossed orbits. I could write about my personal experience and also shed light on a bigger issue that I felt had not yet been told to death – namely, how hard it is for an individual to make decisions based on population-wide statistics, and politically loaded ones at that.

In this article for AHCJ, Brown tells us how she came to write a piece that appeared in The Boston Globe about the conflicts between statistics and emotions and how they affected her decisions.

She writes about how she chose the statistics that she included in her story, what information she did not include to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in her future reporting and how she made sure her narrative was fair and accurate. Read about Brown’s experience.

Are you covering a ‘fakethrough?’

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Jonathan Latham, Ph.D.

Jonathan Latham, Ph.D.

Remember the burger grown from stem cells? It might be a great idea, except a single patty grown using today’s technology, at least, cost a whopping $332,000.

In a new AHCJ tip sheet, Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, asks whether discoveries like that are breakthroughs or “fakethroughs” – scientific advances that will never progress to new treatments or beneficial products. He also talks about his brand of investigative science journalism and why reporting on new discoveries should probably be more muted.

He has two tips for reporters and advice about what research journalists should cover.

Cover the science behind screenings, preventive health recommendations

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

USPSTF-webcastThe U.S. Preventive Services Task Force often finds itself in the news when determining what works and doesn’t work in screenings and preventive care. It told healthy women not to bother with calcium and vitamin D pills, said many women could wait on mammograms until age 50 and recently clarified who might benefit from regular lung cancer screening tests.

The task force’s work lies in translating medical evidence into clinical practice, which can be a difficult and contentious task. Its recommendations are often nuanced and misunderstood.

How does the group come to these determinations and how can you report on the science and not just the heat a recommendation generates? What is evidence-based medicine and how does the USPSTF use it to make recommendations on health care services? Continue reading

Covering news about screenings, preventive health recommendations

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

AHCJ webcastThe U.S. Preventive Services Task Force just released a recommendation that pregnant women be screened for gestational diabetes, even if they have not been previously diagnosed with type 1 or 2 diabetes.

The task force often finds itself in the news when determining what works and doesn’t work in screenings and preventive care.

Previously, it told healthy women not to bother with calcium and vitamin D pills, said many women could wait on mammograms until age 50 and recently clarified who might benefit from regular lung cancer screening tests. The task force’s work lies in translating medical evidence into clinical practice, which can be a difficult and contentious task. Its recommendations are often nuanced and misunderstood.

How does the group come to these determinations and how can you report on the science and not just the heat a recommendation generates? What is evidence-based medicine and how does the USPSTF use it to make recommendations on health care services?

In a Jan. 28 webcast, USPSTF chair Dr. Virginia Moyer and co-vice chair Dr. Michael LeFevre will explain how the task force works in an effort to deepen our reporting of upcoming task force recommendations. A Q&A with the doctors, moderated by AHCJ medical studies topic leader Brenda Goodman, will follow. Continue reading

Researchers agree: A study is a terrible thing to waste

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Spend any significant amount of time reporting on research and you’re bound to run across a real stinker of a study.

Too often, the studies that become clickbait on the web or turn up in women’s magazines – usually boiled down to a surprising health tip – are just, well, how do I put this? Crap.

There are a lot of those kinds of studies in the world. Studies that are too small to be meaningful, or they ask bad or useless questions, they’re poorly designed or they essentially answer a question that’s already been repeatedly answered.

These kinds of studies exist because the publish-or-perish culture of academia rewards volume over value. And let’s accept our part in this, too. There’s always a media outlet that’s willing to trumpet a surprising, if completely unsound, study.

In a microcosm, a bad study or two can raise an eyebrow or a chuckle. In a macrocosm, however, the situation is dire. Continue reading

Tips help remind reporters to understand limits of the studies we cover

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

One of the most important skills required of reporters who cover medical research is the ability to find and discuss the limits of the studies we cover.

To that end, a trio of professors at Cambridge University recently published a helpful comment in the journal Nature: “Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims.” (If you don’t subscribe, you can read the full article for free here.)

Some of my favorites (in no particular order):

  1. Study relevance limits generalizations – a great reminder that the conditions of any study will limit how its findings can be applied in the real world.
  2. Bias is rife – We talk about several types of bias in the topic section, like reporting bias and healthy user effect. The article reminds us that even the color of a tablet can shade how study participants feel. Continue reading