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Problem In Health News Stories: Therapeutic Misconception

A story in the San Diego Union-Tribune describes testing of “an experimental therapeutic filtering device being developed.”

Think about it. It hasn’t been proven therapeutic yet if it’s still experimental.

Lawyers use a term, “therapeutic misconception,” which is important for everyone to know about and think about. It refers to study participants perhaps having the misconception that the purpose of the trial is, indeed, therapeutic – when that hasn’t been established yet.

I see news stories commit this error all the time.

Please don’t call something a therapy when it hasn’t been established as a therapy yet. Call it “experimental approach” or something that doesn’t convey that the fat lady has already sung.


Different story – similar need for editing. A reader pointed this out to me.

The Los Angeles Times reports, “Military suicides linked to low Omega-3 levels.” The story says the finding suggests “powerful psychiatric benefits.”

Only in the final 28 words of a 536 word story does a crucial caveat appear:

“The authors of the current study stress that its design has limitations and that more research is needed before the role of DHA levels in suicide is clear.”

It took way too long to defuse some of the enthusiastic language of the headline and first sentence.

It was an observational study. It can’t establish cause and effect. All observational studies should come with some reminder to this effect for readers’ comprehension.

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

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