Editor’s Note: This article is a part of an Op-Ed series, “Second Opinion,” where patient experts share their take on current research, news, and trends in health and medicine. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions or views of HealthCentral.com.
Television news shows have a problem. During an “awareness” month they need to have many stories on that month’s topic — such as breast cancer stories each October — although not all stories are equally newsworthy. Plus, the reporter gets only a tiny slice of time to report what is usually a complicated story. How can you evaluate those breast cancer headlines you see on the nightly news?
One source I go to for more in-depth analysis of health news is HealthNewsReview, an organization that reports on the quality of health news articles. Kevin Lomangino’s review of a September 2016 NBC News story offers a few clues you can look for when evaluating health information on television, online, or in print.
The NBC story told of the experience of a women whose cancer was found with a test called molecular breast imaging (MBI). In it, Deborah Rhodes, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic was quoted as saying that the technology could lead to “zero deaths” from breast cancer. HealthNewsReview criticized the story for many problems, some of which the average news watcher might miss. However, there were red flags that should raise questions in the mind of any viewer. These are some things to watch for in any health news story.
How extravagant are the claims?
We know that some cancers are more aggressive than others and that even the earliest detection methods cannot end all cancer deaths. When someone promises the possibility of “zero deaths” from breast cancer, you need to start listening skeptically. The wording in a health news story should reflect the complexity of a disease, and not over-promise.
Are multiple perspectives included in the story?
HealthNewReview points out that Dr. Rhodes is one of the researchers who developed MBI, so naturally she thinks it’s a great tool. Including any conflicts of interest of those interviewed and discussed, financial and otherwise, are vital in health news stories. Critical watchers also should notice that the story did not include any experts other than Dr. Rhodes. A good news story should point out possible drawbacks to a new development, and interview more than one expert, including an expert outside of the study/topic being discussed. When a story tells us that a new technique is wonderful, we should use our common sense to evaluate the claim. As a viewer I know that if MBI is the best technology since the X-ray, more doctors would be using it. Lomangino points out two big drawbacks to MBI. It exposes the entire body to radiation and it leads to more false positives than some doctors find acceptable. In a two-minute story, the reporter might not be able to mention all the drawbacks, but beware of any story that presents only one point of view.
Does the story focus on one person’s experience?
A common format to a health problem article is to start with one person. It is hard to visualize the 246,660 people expected to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2016 in the United States, so a reporter focuses on an individual to represent the issue. The NBC story described how MBI detected one woman’s cancer. However, the story needs to put that one person in context. How many other people had this problem? How many other people used this treatment? How well did it work for most of them?
I see the tendency to focus on one person’s experience all the time in my work with breast cancer patients. Last month I was talking to a woman who called the IBC Research Foundation’s toll-free number to get some advice about treatment for her inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). She was reluctant to take the treatment her doctors recommend. She told me that she heard about a woman who decided not to do standard treatment for IBC 30 years ago who is doing fine. Of course, I have no way of knowing the truth about whether the woman actually survived 30 years. Miracles do happen. However, I know that thousands of people die every year from inflammatory breast cancer, but that many survive because they choose treatment. It’s human nature to latch on to a story about one person whose face we can see. However, as a consumer of health news, we need to always ask the follow-up questions. Is this person typical? How likely, given the vast number of cases whose outcomes are now known to science, is my experience likely to be similar?
What does your medical professional say about whether this information applies to you?
Health news stories can point you to possible new treatments that will help you. Your doctor can help you decide if you are a candidate for a new screening test, medicine, or clinical trial.
Part of being an informed citizen is paying attention to health news. Finding out about a health problem or new treatment could save your life. Read and listen with an open mind and then ask questions.
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Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.