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How Can We Interpret The Conflicting Messages From The Media Regarding Research?

I’m choosing to blog about a HealthDay story headlined, “British Study Suggests Mammograms Do More Harm Than Good,” rather than do one of our criteria-driven systematic story reviews because our criteria don’t address the bigger picture.

And that bigger picture is this:

In a criteria-driven, systematic story review of another HealthDay story about a Dutch study this week headlined, “Mammograms Cut Risk of Breast Cancer Death by Half, Study Finds,” our review team commented: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Health News Review*

Missing The Point: Various Representations Of The Same Study

A paper presented at the 2011 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) breast cancer symposium this week has drawn all kinds of news coverage – and much of it is off the mark – even in the eyes of one of the American Cancer Society’s top docs.

The paper concluded:

“Results of this study validate the importance of annual screening mammography in women older than 50 years, and women aged 40 to 49 years recently omitted from screening guidelines. There was an increased prevalence of palpation (breast self exams) for the method of detection in women less than 50 years of age. If screening mammography is omitted in this group, cancers when detected may be of a more advanced stage and result in more mastectomies. This study also supports the use of palpation as a method of detection despite recent recommendations against teaching self breast exams by the USPSTF (US Preventive Services Task Force).”

WebMD’s lead sentence was: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Coffee And Prostate Cancer: The Quality Of News Reports Varies Significantly

We simply don’t know why more news organizations can’t do an adequate job of explaining the limitations of observational studies – most notably, that they can’t prove cause and effect.

Yes, they can show strong associations. But they can’t prove cause and effect.

NBC Nightly News, as one example recently, inadequately explained the latest suggestion that coffee consumption can lower the risk of prostate cancer. In the anchor lead, Brian Williams framed this as another case of flip-flopping science, lightheartedly talking about what they say about “all those medical studies…if you don’t like the findings, wait for the next study.”

The story seemed puzzled at how the same “lab” 30 years ago reported that coffee was linked to an increase in pancreatic cancer. NBC said the researchers later said they got it wrong. This time – with the prostate cancer link – they say they got it right. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Coffee And Stroke: Another Study The Media Got Wrong

Here we go again. Headlines across America blaring lines like, “Coffee may reduce stroke risk.”

It was a big study, but an observational study. Not a trial. Not an experiment. And, as we say so many times on this website that you could almost join along with the chorus, observational studies have inherent limitations that should always be mentioned in stories. They can’t prove cause and effect. They can show a strong statistical association, but they can’t prove cause and effect. So you can’t prove benefit or risk reduction. And stories should say that.

USA Today, for example, did not explain that in its story. Nor did it include any of the limitations that were included in, for example, a HealthDay story, which stated:

“The problem with this type of study is that there are too many factors unaccounted for and association does not prove causality, said Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center at Duke University Medical Center.

“Subjects were asked about their past coffee consumption in a questionnaire and then followed over time. There is no way to know if they changed their behavior,” Goldstein said.

And, he noted, there was no control for medication use or other potential but unmeasured factors.

“The study is restricted to a Scandinavian population, and it is not clear, even if there is a relationship, that it would be present in more diverse populations. I think that it can be concluded, at least in this population, that there was not an increased risk of stroke among coffee drinkers,” he said.”

When you don’t explain the limitations of observational studies — and/or when you imply that cause and effect has been established — you lose credibility with some readers. And you should. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Effect Of Autism-Vaccine Fraud Not Easily Undone

Eighteen percent of American believe that vaccines can cause autism, 30 percent remain unsure, and 52 percent of Americans don’t think vaccines can cause autism, according to public opinion polling done after research linking vaccines to the condition was reported as fraudulent.

While 69 percent of respondents said they had heard about an association between vaccination and autism, 47 percent knew that the original Lancet study had been retracted, and that recently the research is reported as being fraudulent.

The poll also found that 86 percent of parents who have doubts about the vaccine said that their children were fully vaccinated, compared to 98 percent of parents who believe vaccines are safe, and that 92 percent of children are fully vaccinated.

The poll was conducted after news reports were published that said Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher of the research linking autism to the MMR vaccine, had used faked data.

More than 20 studies since Wakefield’s have disputed the association between vaccination and autism.

The online survey of 2,026 adults from Jan. 11 to 13 was done by Harris Interactive and HealthDay. (AP/Fox News, CNN, BMJ, WebMD)

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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