Author Archives: Tara Haelle

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.

Can people with low literacy easily access accurate info about COVID-19?

COVID-Literacy

Photo: Arturo Donate via Flickr

Nothing is more important during a pandemic than ensuring that the public consistently receives accurate information that they can understand. But even government websites designed with the intent to reach people with low literacy levels appear to be falling short of their guidelines for accessible text, according to an August research letter in JAMA Network Open. Continue reading

Bias or comorbidity? Risk factors for respiratory disease aren’t always what they seem

Bias or comorbidityBy this point, anyone who’s been covering or following COVID-19 knows that several comorbidities substantially increase the risk of complications and severe disease. Among those mentioned most often are diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

We learned of the associations between those conditions and more severe disease first from clinical anecdotes, then case series, then observational studies. But observational studies can almost never show causation. (I don’t think they can ever, on their own, show causation, but I add the “almost” because nothing in science is ever absolute.) Although diabetes is linked to poorer outcomes with COVID-19, it doesn’t mean having diabetes causes poorer outcomes. Continue reading

Keep an eye out for lead-time bias with COVID-19 deaths

patient in hospital bed

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Lead time bias is a well-recognized challenge especially when it comes to studies and statistics looking at cancer screenings. As the entry on the AHCJ website explains, lead time bias is a type of bias that can “artificially inflate the survival time of someone with a disease.”

How? When providers get better at looking for — and finding — a disease, it appears to lengthen the time someone survives after diagnosis. In reality, the patient is not necessarily living longer than they would have if the disease were discovered later. It just seems like they’re living longer because the disease is identified sooner, and the “clock” on survival time starts earlier. Continue reading

FDA promises crackdown on researchers who fail to properly register and report studies

Photo: Ferrous Büller via Flickr

For two decades, researchers have been required to register clinical trials that use any U.S. federal funding at ClinicalTrials.gov before they begin the study. The requirement grew out of a 1997 law aiming to increase transparency with studies that tested drugs, procedures or other treatments on people.

Researchers had to include the planned protocol, including endpoints, when registering their trial. If the endpoints changed during the trial, their registration had to be updated, including the reasons for the change. As of 2007, the law required all trial registrations to be completed within a year after the trial began, regardless of the trial results. Continue reading

Press release reporting is irresponsible — especially in a pandemic

coronavirusI received a text from a friend this week with a link to an article about a new drug for COVID-19 that led to “rapid recovery” of “critically ill” patients with COVID-19. “Houston Methodist Hospital is making national headlines after doctors used a new drug to help treat critically ill COVID-19 patients,” the breathless lead began. The last paragraph included this similarly dramatic quote from the drug manufacturer’s CEO in a press release: “No other antiviral agent has demonstrated rapid recovery from viral infection and demonstrated laboratory inhibition of viral replication.”

Along with the article link, my friend had texted, “Reads like a press release.” Continue reading

Tip sheet offers guidance on reading and making sense of scientific studies

Photo: iT@c via Flickr

Of all the skills needed for reporting on medical research, it’s hard to think of one more important than being able to read and understand a single medical study. That may sound obvious, but a surprising number of journalists find their way to covering research findings before they have learned how to read the research papers themselves. (I once was one of them!)

I usually give a talk reviewing the basics of this task at the AHCJ conference each year, but this year’s conference unfortunately was among the large meeting casualties of the pandemic. Regardless, learning to read scientific studies is one of those skills where you get better at it the more you try to do it yourself and the more you hear from different people about how they do it. Continue reading