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.

Pfizer vaccine news sounds great — but it’s still data by press release

PfizerVaccine_Blog_Studies_Haelle

Photo: Self Magazine via Flickr

Pfizer made waves Monday with its announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine, developed with partner BioNTech, is “strongly effective,” with a reported efficacy of over 90%. The news was so highly touted that I woke up to multiple texts from friends about it, and it definitely sounds exciting.

The problem? That 90% is almost the only number we know because the company didn’t release additional data for others to read and interpret. Once again, these “extraordinary” findings, as Pfizer’s senior vice president described them to Stat News, were shared as “data by press release,” a worrisome trend during a pandemic. Continue reading

While still an expensive therapy, doctors see promise in harnessing a patient’s immune system to fight cancer

Electron micrograph of two cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking an oral squamous cancer cell (white), part of a natural immune response.

Photo: NIH Image Gallery via FlickrElectron micrograph of two cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking an oral squamous cancer cell (white), part of a natural immune response.

If you write anything about cancer treatment, it’s nearly impossible to avoid writing about immunotherapy. But reporting on immunotherapy can quickly become complex, confusing and overwhelming. A new AHCJ tip sheet on cancer immunotherapy can help you to report effectively and appropriately on the topic.

The therapy is exactly what it sounds like. Cancer immunotherapy works to recruit the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer instead of using chemotherapy to kill cancer cells directly. Continue reading

New resource can help you assess hazards and risks and odds ratios

Stock art of a Cesarean procedure

Photo: Enrique Saldivar via Flickr

Over the years, I’ve presented on reporting medical research findings. Some of the most common questions I get are about writing the findings using accessible language that an average person can understand. It’s particularly difficult when the outcome is reported in units like standard deviations, but reporting hazard ratios and odds ratios can be confusing as well, especially for those who only occasionally write about medical studies.

A new resource from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University in the UK can help you make sense of those findings and even provide the language and graphics to help your audience understand the results. RealRisk is the brainchild of professor David Spiegelhalter, the center’s chair, a statistician and author of The Art of Statistics, and Executive Director Alexandra Freeman, who told me more about the tool. Continue reading

Use analogies to provide perspective for tricky numbers ― such as COVID-19 fatality rates

Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/dayland/2434961250/">Dayland Shannon</a> via Flickr

Photo: Dayland Shannon via Flickr

It’s no secret that humans are horrible at comprehending and estimating risk, especially when it comes to abstract numbers. It’s one reason (of several) that people fear encountering sharks at the beach more than the undertows that can drown them.

Misperceptions of risk have become an even more urgent life-or-death issue during the pandemic as a substantial number of people attempt to downplay the fatality rate. Continue reading

Know the nuances of vaccine efficacy when covering COVID-19 vaccine trials

it’s important to understand how vaccine efficacy is calculated, and other aspects of efficacy that can ensure your reporting on vaccine trial results is precise and accurateI’ve written in previous posts about what to look for in COVID-19 vaccine trials and red flags to monitor. The two most important outcomes in vaccine trials are the vaccine’s safety and its efficacy. Recall that efficacy is different from effectiveness: efficacy refers to how well the vaccine prevents infection in the clinical trial, with effectiveness referring to how well it prevents infection in the real world with a broader and more diverse population. Continue reading

Freshen your skills with online course on reading medical studies

F. Perry Wilson

F. Perry Wilson

When it comes to feeling competent about understanding, interpreting and reporting on medical studies, one under-appreciated fact is that this is a long-term learning process. I first began to really understand how to make sense of medical studies at an AHCJ annual conference workshop.

Still, it wasn’t until I attended that same workshop two more times — and attended a Medicine in the Media workshop at the NIH and did some studying on my own — that I reached a point where I felt I knew what I was doing. Continue reading