Blog | Thursday, May 28, 2009

Doctors discuss the consequences of misleading medical news

Doctors have to spend a lot of time correcting patients' misimpressions of medical research based on mainstream media reporting, readers told ACP Internist in a survey.

Mainstream media coverage of medical news overstate results and include too few details, according to ACP Internist's poll, "Your Thoughts Exactly: Media reporting of medical research."

According to the poll results, all respondents voted that mainstream media reports of medical studies were exaggerated "extremely," "very much" or "moderately." There were no responses of "somewhat" or "not at all."

When asked to rate the level of detail of medical stories in the mainstream media, all but one respondent thought there was "somewhat" or "way too little" detail in coverage.

The poll is based on a study in Annals of Internal Medicine that concluded the public relations departments of academic medical centers overstate results or don't include important caveats when pitching study results to the media. Authors questioned if this was being passed through to mainstream media reports, which patients then carry into their visits with physicians.

In the daily grind of medical practice, doctors reported a "time drain" of calming patients who'd seen a news report, or deflecting false hopes and over-expectations from others.

One poll respondent summed it up perfectly: "Medical news is almost always distorted, and leads to false hopes and expectations from patients. However, it's part of my daily job to provide patients with accurate and useful information about their medical conditions."

Also, another respondent chastised the media for the lack of distinction made between test tube studies and phase 3 clinical trials, and also the lack of explanation that discoveries about the mechanisms of diseases do not immediately translate into treatments that can be made available.

"Dramatic results are not often carefully noted to be preliminary and unreproduced," another respondent said. "This leads patients to believe findings are ... established. This often requires time to properly balance the whole of the existing (or non-existing) data. Patients don't get the language of 'may be' that is usually reported in the media."

"Fortunately, patients trust their doctor more than the media," one concluded.

Perhaps the best way to overcome poor medical reporting is to do it yourself. One doctor successfully reports medical knowledge to his patients by appearing on TV as a medical commentator.