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
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
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
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
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.
Image by Eric Allix Rogers via flickr.
So you have a great medical study to cover – interesting topic, compelling results. All you need is an interview with the study’s authors to help bring the research home to readers.
That’s where things get tricky. The researcher you need to connect with before your oh-so-tight deadline has letters in his or her affiliation that don’t bode well for timely interviews: FDA, HHS, USDA, CMS.
Scoring an interview with a scientist who works for a government agency can be frustrating and full of dead ends. It shouldn’t be. AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee is working on improving reporters’ access to a number of government agencies.
But change is slow. And your deadlines won’t wait. What can you do today for a story that’s due tomorrow? Continue reading
Image by UGA College of Ag via flickr.
Recently, as part of a package of studies sent to reporters in advance of their annual meeting, the American Chemical Society put out an embargoed press release on a study of bedbug genes.
The study details how researchers at the University of Kentucky surveyed the entire genomes of 21 different bedbug populations collected from large cities in the Midwest.
They discovered that 14 genes work in various combinations to thwart a type of chemical that has commonly been used to kill the blood-sucking critters. What’s even more fascinating is that most of these genes are found in the insects’ tough outer shell, or cuticle. They code for proteins that pump the chemicals out of their bodies or break their molecular bonds, rendering the agents harmless.
Bedbugs, perhaps more than other insects, are masters at becoming resistant to the chemicals we use to try to kill them. That’s thought to be a major reason why they have made a comeback in homes and hotels across the country. This study went a long way toward showing why they’re so hardy and how we might be able to develop better methods to control them in the future.
The problem is that this all sounds a bit familiar to regular readers of Scientific Reports, a research publication from the publishers of Nature.
Scientific Reports published the same research on March 14. Continue reading
Image by Susan Sermoneta via flickr.
Two recent studies in the news have been clear examples of the correlation vs. causation question that’s part and parcel of covering observational research studies.
And they’re worth taking a look at because the correlations are inherently interesting, even though they almost certainly aren’t causal.
First up is “The Effect of Sexual Activity on Wages”, which was published by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor. Predictably, and probably in part due to its terrible title, this study generated lots of headlines like “Have more sex, make more money”, from The Wall Street Journal‘s Marketplace, and Cosmopolitan‘s “The More Sex You Have The More Money You Make“.
Well, not exactly. The study found an association between sex and wages. As self-reported sex increased, so too, did income. Of course, that doesn’t mean that having more sex causes people to make more money, a point that wasn’t stressed clearly enough in some articles for Scientific American blogger Evelyn Lamb’s tastes. Continue reading
Medical reporters are likely familiar with ClinicalTrials.gov, the U.S. government-run registry of clinical trials. The site became available in 2000, three years after Congress passed the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997 (FDAMA), which, as the site notes,
required the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through NIH, to establish a registry of clinical trials information for both federally and privately funded trials conducted under investigational new drug applications (IND) to test the effectiveness of experimental drugs for serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions.
The site – and others around the world – really took off in 2005 after the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors began requiring that researchers register their trials when they started if they wanted to publish the results. Publishing in the peer-reviewed literature is the coin of the realm in academia and also vital for FDA approval, so the carrot worked, according to a 2007 update:
Before the ICMJE policy, ClinicalTrials.gov, the largest trial registry at the time, contained 13 153 trials; this number climbed to 22 714 one month after the policy went into effect (3). In April 2007, the registry contained over 40 000 trials, with more than 200 new trial registrations occurring weekly (Zarin D. Personal communication).
Registration of a trial’s plans – what researchers plan to test, and how – also means there’s a pixel trail if reporters, or any member of the public, wants to see if scientists changed the goalposts to make their results look better, or buried negative results. (Also see Ghost protocols: Scientists propose a way to plug major holes in the medical literature)