Annals of abused translation of observational data

Improving the public dialogue about health care

In our systematic, criteria-driven story reviews 


Every day we ask a team of reviewers to grade and offer constructive criticism of news stories by a set number of top news organizations.  To be eligible, the story must include a claim about a treatment, test, product or procedure.  Here's what we reviewed last week: 


* A Wall Street Journal "Aches & Claims" column got a 5 Star

(5-star) score for a story on bergamot and blood cholesterol.  Read why.  


* A Philadelphia Inquirer story got high marks for a story on Mohs skin cancer surgery, although it didn't address harms or limitations. 4 Star


* A Los Angeles Times story on a new surgically implanted weight loss device didn't discuss potential harms.  3 Star


* An NPR story about weight gain after bariatric surgery had bright spots, but could've done a better job scrutinizing the evidence for claims made. 3 Star


* We just started reviewing Medical News Today stories.  So far they are 2-for-2 in relying almost entirely on a news release - this time on beetroot juice for high blood pressure3 Star


* And HealthDay, which got kudos on our blog last week, also got only a 2 Star (2-star) score for a story on an experimental approach for children at risk of autism.  They either didn't notice or chose not to report that the results were not statistically significant. 









In our blog, we discuss other issues in health care journalism, journals, PR, advertising, marketing and more.  


Last week, we added to the Annals of Abused Translation of Observational Research, with several posts: 


* Explaining how news coverage a la "Twitter knows when you're going to have a heart attack" - and there was a lot of it - was wrong.  You need to go more than 140 characters deep in order to understand that association ≠ causation. 


* Explaining how news coverage a la "Coffee May Cut Melanoma Risk" - and there was a lot of it - was wrong.  Kudos to HealthDay for just 20 words: "The study only uncovered an association between coffee consumption and melanoma risk; it didn't provide a cause-and-effect relationship."  


* Explaining how Cleveland Clinic's repeated Twitter and blog messages a la "One fast food meal/week could increase your heart disease risk by 20%" - and there were a lot of them - were misleading.  (Two former presidents of the Association of Health Care Journalists collaborated on this guest blog post.) 


Many people could learn from our online primer, "Does The Language Fit the Evidence? Association Versus Causation." 


* Finally, a guest blog post from psychiatrist Susan Molchan, MD, criticized another psychiatrist's New York Times Well blog post because of how it reported that brain PET scans might produce a potential biomarker that could help psychiatrists predict response to treatment. Two more psychiatrist-critics also weighed in.  It was a strong first guest post by Molchan, from whom we expect to see a lot more in the future. 


Remember, behind the scenes, we're conducting "practice" reviews of health care news releases - reviews we hope to begin publishing on a newly redesigned website by April. 

Gary Schwitzer 
Adjunct Associate Professor
University of Minnesota School of Public Health

This project is now supported by a generous grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.     


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