Where are your Patients Getting their “Health News”?
Monday, September 14, 2015
Carolyn Martin, MLS, AHIP
Consumer Health Outreach Coordinator
NN/LM Pacific Northwest Region
“Does Vitamin D deficiency cause MS? Is it true that working long hours increases my risk of stroke? Should I take Kim Kardashian’s advice on morning sickness, Doctor?” Where are patients getting this “information”?
Vitamin D Deficiency May Lead to Multiple Sclerosis.
Too Much Fat? Try a Whole-Body Scan
Employees Working Long Hours Face Increased Risk of Stroke, Study Finds
“OMG. Have you heard about this?”
Morning sickness and Kim Kardashian on Instagram
Do you have patients who come to their office visits asking or even telling you about a miracle drug they recently heard about on TV or in the news or maybe even through social networking? What do you tell your patients? How do you even decipher exactly what is being reported in these headlines?
Healthnewsreviews.org is an excellent place to begin. This website is headed by Gary Schwitzer, a long established journalist who specializes in health reporting. His team of several reporters reviews and grades news stories. They use criteria like these, asking whether the story:
§ Adequately quantifies the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?
§ Adequately explains/quantifies the harms of the intervention?
§ Commits disease-mongering?
§ Uses independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?
§ Appears to rely solely or largely on a news release?
Healthnewsreview.org advocates for better health news reporting and encourages consumers to do their own critiquing. But what criteria should consumers use? In a recent interview with MinnPost, Schwitzer listed five items for the public to consider when reading news stories:
1. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
2. Does the story claim only the benefits? Does it do only a quick listing of side effects?
3. What about the cost of the treatment/procedure/product?
4. Does the story report about a “simple screening test”? If it does, that is a red flag because “there is no such thing as a simple screening test.”
5. More is not necessarily better when it comes to health care.
Encouraging patients to become engaged in their health is what we want. Rather than quickly negating the information they are inquiring about, ask them why the story is of interest and take it as an educational opportunity. Offer Schwiter’s tips to analyze the story.
Health care reporting is complicated and has its challenges. Many journalists do not have the background or education in health and science and are just as uninformed as the public. They must rely on what they read in the research, what the researchers are telling them, or what is written in a press release that a public relations agency provides. Often, journalists face tight deadlines that do not allow for in-depth investigation of commercial pressure to heighten interest or even a direct sales pitch associated with the story.[i]
It’s not just in the news where consumers are getting health information. An Instagram posting by Kim Kardashian about a treatment for morning sickness demonstrates how social media plays a role as well. Social media now has much greater influence than some people realize. While many use social media to stay in touch with family and friends or follow a favorite celebrity, it is now also becoming an effective way to endorse a product, whether through the company’s page or through a celebrity. The FDA has responded to this growing marketing trend by developing guidelines for presenting risks and benefits of drugs and medical devices on social media. According to the New York Times, Kardashian’s Instagram post was reported to the FDA’s Bad Ad Program. This program can help clinicians educate patients about evaluating drug advertisements.
If it seems that the problem is the journalists’ and the news agencies that employ them, it isn’t that simple. A study by BMJ revealed that, in health-related press releases, 40% stated advice not actually included in the journal article. BMJ also found that 36% of the press releases gave the impression that a study’s findings were for humans, when no humans were used in the study. The BMJ study also found that fewer than half of the studies cited could be replicated.[ii]
Universities, journals and companies can also exaggerate in the press releases sent to journalists. Science might be considered a dull topic for the general public, so press releases employ attention-getting tactics to create interest.
Who has time to educate their patients about health news as well as about their health conditions? Use the resources that Healthnewsreview.org offers, especially tips for understanding the research. Even though it is intended for journalists, your patients might find Schwitzer’s book Covering Medical Research: A Guide for Reporting on Studies helpful, as it does a great job of explaining the science, if at a slightly challenging literacy level. Another helpful resource is Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics by Steven Woloshin, freely available online. It’s a good resource for better understanding what is reported and how and why.[iii] PubMed Health also has a section called Behind the Headlines. This is information to provide some guidance when reading news stories about health.
You might join the Association for Health Care Journalists and take advantage of their training opportunities and resources. Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy’s Journalist’s Resource offers a brief guide for the media, suggesting eight questions to ask.[iv] Health science librarians can also assist in educating patients. Ask your university or hospital librarian to create a subject guide for your health center’s website or to provide a program on research lingo and how to respond intelligently to health news. Trained in critiquing information, your librarian will be happy to assist both you and your patients.
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