Resources: Articles

When the study’s not the story Date: 03/07/13

Salynn Boyles
Salynn Boyles

by Salynn Boyles

Writing about medical research can be a pretty straightforward task.

Interview the lead researcher and an independent source familiar with the subject and the hard part is done. If you’ve got a decent press release, the whole process can end up taking a few hours. On to the next story.

The two-phone-call approach works just fine when the study is the story.

Alas, I have found that this is often not the case.

Reporters who write often about medical studies know the red flags: the all-too-eager researcher with the industry-funded study; the press release that reads like an ad; the overstated conclusion that isn’t backed up by the research.

When you dig deeper, the story you end up writing is often very different from the study you start out with even when the research is basically sound.

One of the most glaring examples of this happened to me just a few weeks ago.

Gastric banding: What’s the story?

The Australian study concluded that gastric-banding weight-loss surgery was an effective long-term solution to obesity.

It was one of the largest and longest follow-up trials of the procedure ever done, and the accompanying press release proclaimed it a “landmark study.”

But an initial Google search for the terms ‘gastric banding’ and ‘lap band’ turned up several recent studies questioning the effectiveness and safety of lap band surgery.

In an interview, the lead author of the new study was dismissive of these trials.

He had helped pioneer the gastric banding procedure and his study was funded by Allergan Inc., the company that markets the most widely used band. That was red flag No. 1.

In separate interviews, surgeons at two weight-loss surgical centers told me a different story.

Both said they had essentially stopped performing gastric banding surgery within the past two years and the surgery was not being done much at their centers because patients did not lose as much weight as they did with other surgeries.

They also said their patients who got the gastric bands tended to need multiple adjustments and more long-term maintenance.

One said 80 patients with the bands had been converted to other procedures at his surgical center in the past year alone.

Another Internet search – this time looking for evidence of a nationwide downward trend in gastric banding surgeries -- led to a New York Times story from late October stating that Allergan was attempting to sell the device due to declining sales. A call to the company confirmed this.

Some high-profile success stories

At this point I could have written a pretty negative story about gastric banding, but I still didn’t feel like I had the whole picture.

All that Internet searching had also turned up some high-profile gastric banding success stories, including that of New York Jet’s head coach Rex Ryan, who lost more than 100 pounds after having lap band surgery in March 2010.

One more interview – this time with American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery president Jaime Ponce, M.D. – convinced me that I finally had the perspective I needed.

Ponce explained that while gastric banding does require strict patient compliance, as well as close maintenance and often multiple adjustments, it can be a reasonable option for patients who understand this and have access to good follow-up care.

He pointed out that gastric banding is still performed more than other weight-loss surgeries in countries like Australia, where follow-up care is covered by national insurance.

He said patients who are disciplined enough to follow highly restrictive diet and have access to good follow-up care tend to do very well.

It took five interviews to get this story, and, yes, I missed my deadline.

But I also ended up with a story that much more closely reflected what is going on with this surgery in the United States today than the “landmark” Australian study.

It was also a lot more fun to write.

Salynn Boyles is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about medical issues and health for two decades. She has written more than 2,500 stories on a wide range of medical topics, with an emphasis on chronic disease, preventive medicine, and food policy. Her work appears regularly in WebMD and Cancer Weekly. She lives in Nashville.