Friday, September 6, 2013

HCR -- Overhyping News

Gary Schwitzer's Health News Review reports on and evaluates other reports about health, science and medical topics. This letter from a patient illustrates why their mission is so important. 
Dear Gary: 
Today I read a news release headlined “NIH Study Links Hodgkin Lymphoma Treatment to Possible Risk of Stomach Cancer.” 
After reading the article, I felt like someone punched me in the gut. 
This sentence was most troubling: “Of 17,477 Hodgkin lymphoma cases examined, the researchers identified 89 survivors who later developed stomach cancer.” 
Isn’t that an infinitesimal number? That’s only one-half of one percent. But that wasn’t made clear in the article. 
I’m not a medical professional and don’t pretend to have the background necessary to understand these things, but it seems as though it’s unnecessarily scary. In addition to my primary care provider, I’m seen by my breast surgeon and an oncologist, none of whom have mentioned any concerns about stomach cancer. I’m bright and I’m strong and certainly could have handled such information (although the article does say that most cases occur before age 50, and I’m 71). So my question is, is this really news that we survivors need to know or is the relationship between the radiation (admittedly nasty stuff, especially in the quantities used 40 years ago) and the incidence of stomach cancer a bit sketchy and so rare as to be difficult to establish a cause-and-effect 
Putting such a headline in a publication available to the lay public creates an unnecessary threat of anxiety to patients who’ve already suffered a great deal. 
Certainly the information must be available, but I believe the very slight risk of stomach cancer should be given greater prominence. Bad news doesn’t go away because we wish it would, but neither should we endure worry and fear out of proportion to the facts. 
Many people may not read beyond the headline, or if they do they may not stop to figure the percentage in one sentence of a seven-paragraph article containing lots of numbers. 
Scientific candor is essential, but so is perspective.
Every time I hear yet another of these "possible breakthrough" or "interesting new finding" reports in the media I have the same reaction. Like the recent reports about washing poultry I can't help wondering how much of this reporting is news and how much is just filling air time. Schwitzer responds: 
Carol’s comments are exactly why we have published this website for more than 7 years. Many times in many venues, we are novices in how we communicate about risks. I think there’s often a huge disconnect – a chasm – between those who communicate about health care and their audiences. 
It’s a chasm we try to bridge on this website. Thanks to Carol for sharing her story. I hope we – somebody – can learn from it.
Anyone interested in health care news is invited to visit that site and check it out from time to time. It's not necessary to eagerly gobble up every piece of news, even from Health News Review. But in today's world of information overload, it's easy to get pushed into panic mode when calmly doing more homework is in order.

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