Author Archives: Brenda Goodman

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.

Ore. reporter uses data to expose the risks of home births

Markian Hawryluk

Markian Hawryluk

While beauticians and tattoo artists are regulated in the state of Oregon, midwife certification is voluntary and, even then, the hurdles for certification are rather minimal.

But with midwives largely operating outside of the established health care system, there was little more than anecdotal evidence about the safety of home births to go on. That changed last year.

Markian Hawryluk, a health reporter with The Bend (Ore.) Bulletin and an AHCJ Regional Health Journalism Fellow, describes how he took advantage of new data collected by the state of Oregon to shape an article that revealed high mortality rates for home births in his state.

“If home birth were a drug,” he wrote, “it would be taken off the market.”

Read more about how he reported the story and get links to resources he used.

What reporters need to know about side effects and drug studies

Recently, Dr. Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre), a prominent critic of drug studies, wanted to find out how often side effects reported by users of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins were genuinely caused by the medications.

The study he co-authored concluded that most reported side effects of statins aren’t often due to the drugs themselves, but to other causes. The study generated front-page headlines in the U.K., with an article in The Telegraph declaring, “Statins have virtually no side effects, study finds.”

Outcry ensued. Patients who experienced side effects on statins begged to differ, and Goldacre’s fans wondered if he had suddenly gone soft on pharmaceutical companies.

In response, Goldacre penned a nuanced explanation of the study findings, explaining* that its conclusions were flawed because it was based on incomplete data.

The statin study controversy aside, his blog post makes some key points about how side effects are reported in medical journals that are helpful for health reporters to keep in mind when covering the downsides of new drugs. I’ve boiled some important points down and included them in this tip sheet for AHCJ members.

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post used the word “admitting.”

Adjusted risk pool has some rethinking cervical cancer rates

What if experts wanted to figure out the rate of tonsil cancer, but forgot to exclude all the people who’d had their tonsils removed?

Those people are no longer at risk for tonsil cancer, and since there are more than half a million tonsillectomies performed each year in the U.S., counting them in the risk pool would dramatically dilute the true rate of the disease.

That’s what seems to have happened with cervical cancer, according to a thought-provoking new study published in the journal Cancer.

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Data shines a light on C-sections, maternal mortality

Image by Ray Dumas via flickr.

Image by Ray Dumas via flickr.

There was some good data analysis that turned personal for me last week, and I feel compelled to give a shout-out to the reporters and publications (Consumer Reports, CNN, Time) that covered the stunning rise in cesarean rates in the U.S. and revealed the enormous differences in C-section rates between hospitals.

This is really helpful stuff if you’re trying to find the best place to deliver a baby, as I’ve been for the past few weeks. And trust me, it’s no easy task.

I’m pregnant with my first child. As a health reporter, all the worries of pregnancy have been compounded by what I’ve long known about the health care system I’m up against.

The U.S. is a scary place to be expecting a baby.  We spend more than any other country in the world on health care and more on childbirth related care – $86 billion annually – than on any other area of hospitalization, according to a 2011 editorial in the journal Contraception. Yet our maternal-fetal outcomes are some of the worst among developed nations.

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Countering the fog of research

Image by Mark Robinson via flickr.

Image by Mark Robinson via flickr.

The military uses the phrase “the fog of war” to describe the miscalculations and botched decisions that get made in the heat of combat.

But you need not sign up for active duty to run into foggy thinking. Just call a scientist and interview them about their own research.

One of my favorite examples of this is when researchers conduct observational studies that can’t show cause and effect, yet interpret their findings to reporters as if they do. Continue reading

The press release that fell and hit its head

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