Wednesday, October 1, 2008

JAMA study on News Media Misses the Bigger Problem

It is not surprising that there is limited media coverage of a JAMA article which criticizes the media for their coverage of medical studies. Specifically, of studies published in the major medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and Archives of Internal Medicine), that were covered in the media, 42%; did not report that the research had received company funding and of the studies on drugs with both a generic and brand name, 67% of the media reports mentioned the drug by brand name at least half of the time.

As mentioned, there is limited coverage of this study in the mainstream media, as well as little chatter on this in the blogsphere. Though most of the focus will be on the lack of reporting of industry funding, there are bigger issues here. I am not too bothered by the findings of the study because 1) most studies involving therapeutic agents are funded by the industry and 2) the public knows the medications by the brand name and not the generic. The real issues are regarding media coverage of medicine in general.

Dr. Kevin Pho of the blog KevinMD correctly points out that
Part of the problem is that some reporters cross-cover medical stories, and are
not specifically trained in the nuances that are unique to health reporting.
In addition, the shear volume of articles is worth mentioning as well. In the study, they looked at articles published over 4 years in the aforementioned journals regarding an industry sponsored drug study. Of the 358 studies they found, 117 were reported in the media using 306 unique reports. This means that over the course of 4 years, there was an article reported about every other week and mentioned three unique times. And this is only for the findings in the 5 biggest impact journals. This doesn't include articles coming out of specialty journals, which also get a lot of press (such as the recent study about Hep B and Pancreatic cancer reported in the NY Times and published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology). This doesn't include reports from agencies like the CDC (such as the report on Superbugs in the WSJ today). This doesn't include announcements from the FDA, which I have mentioned have increased in recent days. This doesn't include non-pharmaceutical reports (such as ABC News' piece on holistic ways to treat the common cold) and it doesn't include medical "buzz" reports such as CNN's reporting of celebrity Jenny McCarthy's crusade against vaccines because the may cause Autism (CDC says that they don't Jenny).

The public is inundated on a daily basis with medical information that is not always reported accurately, that often takes a negative spin (because scary things sell papers and thus advertising dollars), that leave the public and patients confused, and in many cases lead patients to distrust any product and even their own doctors. (My post on a Men's Health article regarding 8 drugs doctors would never take being a perfect example).

One of my main purposes for starting this blog was to help my patients and friends (as well as others) sort through the media mess. However, I am finding it is an uphill battle.

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