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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
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.
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.
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
The highest rates of obesity in the U.S. occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates. This apparent paradox becomes more understandable when you consider the economics.
Processed foods and products with added sweeteners and higher fat content are cheaper than nutrient-dense whole fruits and vegetables, fresh whole-grain breads, lean meats and seafood. Farm subsidies have boosted the output of cheap food and further pushed down the prices relative to healthier options. From 1985 to 2000, retail prices of fresh vegetables and fruit rose nearly 120 percent, about six times more than the rate of increase for soft drinks and three times more than that of sweets and fats.
Given these well-established findings, I was surprised by the confusion on display in the flurry of news reports on a new meta-analysis by researchers at Brown University and the Harvard School of Public Health. The researchers crunched the numbers from 27 previous studies and calculated that healthy eating costs $1.48 more per day per adult than eating a low-quality diet ($550 more annually per person). Here are some of the headlines that ensued: Continue reading
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):
- 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.
- 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
With mammograms in the news lately, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has posted its plan for reviewing and updating its recommendations for screening for breast cancer. The draft research plan lays out the “strategy the Task Force will use to collect and examine research and is the first step in updating the 2009 recommendation,” according to Ana Fullmer at USPTF. Recommendations are updated every five to seven years, so she says a new recommendation probably won’t be finished for a few years.
The panel is seeking answers about the specific benefits and harms of screening mammography for women over 40, they’re asking if benefits and risks vary by imaging technique – digital mammograms, ultrasound or MRIs; and importantly, they’re trying to find out how common ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is in the U.S. and what benefits and harms are involved in treating it.
Experts recently recommended renaming DCIS to exclude the word “carcinoma” so the finding wouldn’t be so frightening to patients. DCIS is an abnormal pattern of cell growth in the milk ducts of the breast. In many cases, it doesn’t progress to cancer. Yet a growing number of women have decided to remove both breasts rather than take their chances that it isn’t dangerous.
Interested parties who want to weigh in on the draft plan are encouraged to submit comments and questions to the Task Force by Dec. 11.
Image by themozhi’s pixel displays via flickr.
It’s a jaw-dropper of a story. A reluctant television reporter is persuaded by her producers to have a mammogram in front of the cameras. A few weeks later, she reveals the results on air: The test she initially didn’t want found cancer.
In an essay for ABC News, her employer, Amy Robach wrote:
The doctors told me bluntly: “That mammogram just saved your life.”
If you’re a woman, this is the kind of news that sends a cold stab of fear through you. Here’s a professional in the prime of her life with no family history and, by her own estimation, very little in the way of personal risk. And she’s young — just 40 years old.
The problem with Robach’s story is that it is too scary. It seems to be a play for ratings in November, a month when television stations rely on viewership numbers to set advertising rates. Continue reading
Image by Tony Alter via flickr.
How much and how well older adults sleep may be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in JAMA Neurology this week. Researchers from The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that buildup of ß-Amyloid plaques — one of the hallmarks of the disease — was greater in people who reported sleep disturbances and who slept for fewer hours than those who got at least seven hours of Z’s with good sleep quality.
Fluctuations in ß-Amyloid levels may be regulated by sleep-wake patterns according to the report’s authors. Investigators looked at data from 70 adults (average age 76 years) in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Plaque buildup was measured by imaging of the brain.
According to the National Institute on Aging, as many as 5.1 million Americans may have the disease. First symptoms usually appear after age 60, but it’s likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems are evident. Previous studies have linked disturbed sleep to cognitive impairment in older people. Continue reading
Medical research can often seem far removed from a local health beat. All the statistics, the jargon, the complicated graphs can make it easy to forget that behind every number there’s a real person. In fact, medical studies can be great jumping off points for local stories. The key is finding the people who are at the heart of the research.
We asked health reporter Eryn Brown to share how she recently turned a medical study from Yale University into a poignant local story for the Los Angeles Times. In bringing the research home, she shined a light on the heartbreaking ways low-income mothers have to stretch diapers when they can’t afford a steady supply.
The story is part of a recent push in research to “operationalize” poverty by documenting the concrete ways income impacts health and quality of life. These kinds of studies are starting to give us a glimpse into the hardships faced by people on the fringes of society and offer reporters some meaningful stories to tell.
Read about how Brown came across the story and how she reported it.