Health Journalism Needs a Healthy Dose of Skepticism

Mar 15, 2013

This Thursday and Friday, I've been attending the annual Association for Health Care Journalists conference, which happens to be in Boston this year. It's such a privilege to rub elbows with some of the nation's most talented health journalists and medical minds. If you want to get a sense of the big health care stories now and on the horizon, just have a look at a few of the panels and workshops:

  • the complexity of coordinating senior care (yep, I attended that one!); which those of you who've been following our series, The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island, will recognize
  • what's next for health reform in the states (the big one? health exchanges - Rhode Island's is scheduled to go live in October) and for businesses
  • the promise - and hype - of new treatments: stem cells, personal genomics, infertility
  • getting a handle on health care costs; the example of Massachusetts; hospitals paying for readmissions
  • the future of primary care and electronic health records

The big takeaway for me from so many of the panels I'm attending is a good one for all of us, I think: be skeptical about news stories and ads that make dramatic health claims. Red flags? Here's a common one: big numbers. Let's say you come across a story reporting that a certain drug is linked with a "a 50% decrease in the risk of breast cancer." Your next question shouldn't necessarily be, "Where can I get some?" but rather, "50% of what?" For example: Let's say your risk of breast cancer is 2%. The drug might only have reduced that risk to 1%, which is a 50% decrease, but not as impressive sounding, right?

Speaking of skepticism....I asked a panel of pretty illustrious psychiatrists (Harvard, MIT, etc.) whether or not they were excited about the possibility of a Brain Activity Map project being funded and providing new insights for diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. The BAM project is exciting a lot of Rhode Island researchers now because the state could attract some funding for its neuroscience institutes and programs. But these psychiatrists (including: Steven E. Hyman, M.D., head of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Paul Summergrad, M.D., chairman of the Dept. of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center; and Bruce M. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Shervert Frazier Research Institute at Harvard's McLean Hospital) said "not so fast." First, they said, it's not a clear yet whether a map of the brain's activity could translate into better diagnosis and treatment for patients with psychiatric disorders. Second, they want to know more about who's involved and who's promoting the project - since several seem to have some kind of affiliation with one foundation. And third, they're concerned that if BAM gets a lot of funding, what won't get funded as a result?