The limited coverage of healthcare policy by the news media is a major problem.
The PROBLEM is not the problem; the problem is the COMMUNICATION about the problem. Dianna Booher, Booher Consultants, Inc., booher.com
Let’s be frank: we rely on the media to provide us with balanced information so that we can debate the policies that our government adopts. As lawmakers consider major reforms, the need for healthcare policy information is critical.
Unfortunately, as we showed here, the news media would rather highlight stories about the research of, and treatment for, specific diseases and conditions.
This is not especially surprising, as reporters can give these stories a human-interest spin and/or play up sensational elements that help to sell papers and increase ratings.
And there is a need for such information, especially as the Baby Boomer generation ages and as American longevity increases, which means that more folks face the likelihood of battling a serious illness such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or stroke.
If the news media would do a better job of balancing such stories with coverage about the healthcare policy debates, that would be a good first step.
But there are other major problems with the media’s coverage of diseases, and their treatments, that should concern the public and healthcare reformers alike.
Check out this excellent, innovative website called the Health News Review. Funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, the website’s creator, Dr. Gary Schwitzer, and his dedicated team of news analysts aim to promote Accuracy, Balance and Completeness in media coverage.
In a report published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), Mr. Schwitzer and his team found that “journalists usually fail to discuss: costs, the quality of the evidence, the existence of alternative options, and the absolute magnitude of potential benefits and harms,” when it comes to presenting information about newly developed treatments, tests, products and procedures.
The study looked at 500 news stories published in a variety of mediums over two years.
Specifically, the news analysts considered whether the stories:
- Discussed costs, and compared the newer treatments with existing alternatives. Stories that did not mention whether or not insurance companies were likely to pay for the treatments did not receive a high ranking.
- Explained and quantified benefits and potential harms.
- Conducted in-depth research, including seeking out additional sources and examining potential conflicts of interest in sources. Often times, reporters rely exclusively on a news release from a scientist or company, without going to outside sources to verify the claims made. The industry-related parties usually stand to benefit financially from the new test or procedure.
- In other words, the concern is that the news media is simply giving unwarranted, free publicity to drug manufacturers or drug-industry scientists without really questioning the value and potential costs, (financial or otherwise), of the newly developed products.
- Reviewed the study methodology, and true novelty of the product: As we have shown before, the FDA often approves drugs for the market that offer no significant benefits over their predecessors. The news media is contributing to the hype over new drugs that may not be much better than those coming before, but that certainly cost consumers, insurers and the government much more.
- Avoided disease mongering: In discussing new treatments, statistics about the large presence of certain diseases are often blown out of proportion. Journalists also lend support to the idea that normal states, such as baldness, need to be treated as diseases.
- This leads to public alarm, and to increased support for new products.
The study found that more often than not, U.S. news coverage was lacking when it came to these fair and accurate criterion: 62-77% of the stories examined did not meet the minimum standards.
Schwitzer sums up the media coverage of tests, prescription drugs and procedures as such: “You could call it a “kid in the candy store” portrayal of US health care, whereby everything is made to look terrific, risk-free, and without a price tag.”
The Health News Review website has literally thousands of examples of both excellent and poor reporting. You can find ratings for healthcare stories that appeared in just about every major American newspaper.
Here are two examples that caught our attention:
This USA today article examined research linking prostate cancer with multivitamin use. The article received a 5-star (out of 5) ranking because it was careful not to suggest that taking a large number of multivitamins causes cancer.
- It instead showed that heavy multivitamin usage may result in a higher risk for advanced types of prostate cancer. The article’s author discussed the implications and flaws of the study’s design, while also consulting outside sources and proposing alternatives to multivitamins.
- Read the article here and the full analysis here.
And our local newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published this story about research on the use of growth hormone (GH) to fight the effects of aging.
- The article did not provide statistically significant data to show that elderly adults who were given growth hormone showed improvement in physical functioning, as the research cited claims.
- The author is ambiguous when it comes to the legality of taking GH for anti-aging or cosmetic uses. It is illegal under federal law to provide GH for these purposes.
- The article is accused of disease mongering because it consistently suggests that aging is a disease for which a pill must be taken.
- The article received a one-star ranking.
- Read the article here and full analysis here.
The lack of reporting on healthcare policy stifles the reform debates.
Poor or misleading reporting on new treatments, tests, and procedures also has enormous potential for harm.
- For one, overly optimistic stories about new cures can create unrealistic expectations amongst patients, and healthy consumers alike.
- Folks are more likely to demand a new product or test from their doctors upon hearing such a story on the news.
- This costs us more in both public and private healthcare dollars, and may even cause physical harm to the patient.
- Not surprisingly, direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical ads tend to have the same effect.
- Second, we spent 16.6% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare in 2008 and that percentage is expected to grow.
- As consumers, taxpayers and citizens, we need fair and accurate information about the true costs and benefits of products.
- That way, we can collectively make an informed decision about how many new tests, prescriptions and procedures we actually need (and are willing to pay for).
The folks at the Health News Review have great hopes for changing reporters’ behavior through training and increased awareness.
Despite the fact that the majority of newspapers do not provide healthcare-related training opportunities, many organizations including the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Knight Foundation now offer programs to train reporters in the basics of health care coverage and analysis.
There are also a number of online resources for journalists who are new to the health beat. The Health News Review site has a section called “The Things You Should Know about Medical Research Stories,” which advises reporters to avoid the following 7 words when writing or talking about healthcare and disease:
And The New America Foundation offers this online guide.