Tag Archives: medical research

Dentists warn of risk in cleaning pacifiers with saliva

Dental folks collectively caught their breath when they heard about the study, just published in the journal Pediatrics.

The findings: Children whose parents “cleaned” dropped pacifers by sucking on them were less likely to have asthma or eczema at 18 months than children whose parents did not use this particular method.

In a May 6 story for National Public Radio, reporter Rob Stein explained the findings. He started out by talking with a typical mom who described washing her child’s pacifier when he dropped it, even cleaning it in boiling water if it fell “somewhere particularly gross.”

But, then Stein went on to say “there’s a theory that says: That may not be the best way to go. That sterilizing that pacifier may actually have a big downside. To try to find out, Bill Hesselmar, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and his colleagues, studied 184 babies who used pacifiers and their parents. Continue reading

Housework-hurts-sex study causes a dust up

You may have seen — and let’s face it — given a giant eye roll to a recent studythat claimed men who helped out with chores traditionally deemed the province of women, i.e. laundry, dishes, and dusting, had less sex than men who cut the grass and changed the oil but generally left the more feminine chores to their wives.

Health reporters cried foul.

One of the best ledes came from The Telegraph’s Michael Hanlon:

The relationship between sex, marriage and gender roles is so complex that unravelling it makes the work of the Large Hadron Collider look like playschool.

Hanlon’s story had plenty of strengths, including a quote from an expert who questioned the reliability of the data:

The fact is that people lie about, or at least misremember, how much housework they do almost as much as they lie about the amount of sex they are having.

His expert also pointed out that the two variables – sex and housework – might correlate, but may not necessarily be causal. Continue reading

BMJ analysis reveals widespread publication/selection bias in research

Reporting on a study released by BMJ and characterized as an almost existential threat to the medical research system by Dr. Harlan Krumholz, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s John Fauber writes that “Drug research, even from clinical trials sponsored by the federal government, routinely is suppressed, harming patients and increasing health care costs.” The emphasis is mine, the strong language Fauber’s.

The conclusions are based on a survey of meta-analyses of individual participant data, which the authors broke down by data source characteristics and publication status. The work is heavy on statistical analysis, but even lay readers can understand the broad strokes of what appears to be a widespread issue.

Steve Nissen, the lead author of the analysis, said 35 of the 42 studies he looked at were unpublished and were obtained only because a court case required the drug’s maker, GlaxoSmithKline, to turn over the data.

And it isn’t just pharmaceutical companies’ financial concerns driving the suppression, Nissen and his coauthors found. At that point, it may more of an issue of confirmation bias and other problems which have always lurked within academic research.

A surprising finding in the BMJ analysis was that serious lapses occurred even in clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health.

That research showed that less than half of NIH-funded clinical trials were published in a medical journal within 30 months of the completion of the trial and after 51 months, one-third of trials remained unpublished.

Obesity doctor calls journalists’ statistical knowledge into question

Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, writes about two studies about obesity and questions whether journalists are skilled enough in statistical analysis to accurately report on them.

Freedhoff says a new report refutes an earlier study – published in the New England Journal of Medicine and widely reported by the media – as being statistically flawed. And he is skeptical the new study will receive attention from the journalists who reported the first study.

The original study, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” by Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James H. Fowler, Ph.D., was widely reported with headlines proclaiming that “Obesity is socially contagious” in 2007.

A new study by Indiana University’s Russell Lyons, published in Statistics, Politics, and Policy, claims “the assumptions behind the statistical procedures used were insufficiently examined.”

As Freedhoff notes, the NEJM has an impact factor of 50, while Statistics, Politics, and Policy has an impact factor of 0.857, leading one to wonder how many reporters have even heard of the new study.

But Freedhoff – who admits he’s no statistics expert – questions whether journalists will report on the new study because they do not have the statistical knowledge to do so.

All in all, even if you’re not a statistician, Lyons’ paper is worth a sober read and reflection, and here’s something else to chew on – the journalists who were originally all over Christakis’ and Fowler’s work? I’d bet every last penny I’ve got that not a single one of them were skilled enough in statistical analysis to analyze it. Really, why should they have been? They’re journalists, not statisticians. No, instead they smelled a good story, and ran with it. Those same journalists who shouted from the rooftops that obesity’s contagious? I’m betting the vast majority of them are going to be silent on this one, yet wouldn’t re-reporting be the socially responsible, ethical, and journalistic right thing to do?

Update: Brian Reid found this paper, “Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior,” that appears to be a response to Lyon’s research – Christakis and Fowler reference his critique specifically at least twice in the paper.

So, reporters, let’s hear what you think: Do you know enough about statistics to analyze and report on the new study? Or were you even aware of the new study?

Covering Medical ResearchIt’s certainly worth pointing to AHCJ’s most recent slim guide here: Covering Medical Research, which helps journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies.

It offers advice on recognizing and reporting the problems, limitations and backstory of a study, as well as publication biases in medical journals and it includes 10 questions you should answer to produce a meaningful and appropriately skeptical report. This guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is a road map to help you do a better job of explaining research results for your audience.

An earlier slim guide, “Covering Obesity: A Guide for Reporters,” also might come in handy for covering the topic.

Fellows learn about BRFSS data on trends in health

This is a guest post from Lara Salahi, of ABC News. She is one of 11 AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows visiting the CDC this week.

I’ve been assigned the disease topic, perhaps even given the gist of the headline. And now I’ve got a few good hours to meet my deadline.


The 2010 AHCJ-CDC fellows take a break from their busy week in Atlanta. They are: (front row) Raymond Hainer, Health.com / Time Inc.; Meredith Matthews, Current Health Teens magazine/Weekly Reader; Ruby de Luna, KUOW-Seattle Public Radio; Kevin McCarthy, Consumer Reports/Consumers Union; (second row) Margaret Haskell, Bangor Daily News; Felice Freyer, The Providence Journal; Katherine Harmon, Scientific American; (back) Lara Salahi, ABC News; Rong Lin II, Los Angeles Times; Miranda Van Gelder, Martha Stewart Living; and Jori Lewis, freelance journalist & radio producer.

The patient story: compelling.

The expert opinion: piece of cake.

But finding accurate and current data that will pull the story into perspective? Suddenly I can hear the minutes taken from writing ticking away, one hour of research at a time.

Chalk this scenario up on the list of “You know you’re a daily reporter/producer when…” you’re the only one who wishes there were more hours in a workday.

Readers and viewers want to know how common a health issue is in their state, or whether a health trend has increased or decreased over time.

The CDC website is so expansive; it’s hard to tell where to start. But the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS, is a quick link to bookmark. BRFSS publishes annual prevalence and trends data on health issues such as diabetes, health care access, and oral health.

Lina Balluz, acting director of the Division of Behavior Surveillance at the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, walked the AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows through finding the analyzed self-reported data from telephone-based questionnaires.

BRFSS is one of the fastest data collection methods analyzed on a given health issue, said Balluz. The system includes national data, stratified by states. It’s one tool that may help add perspective to a story and cut the time spent searching.

Editor’s note: For help finding additional information on the CDC website, we recommend AHCJ’s “Navigating the CDC: A Journalist’s Guide to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web Site.”

Other dispatches from the AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows: