'Breakthrough' to Reality of Medical Headlines

June 30, 2009

Reading the newspaper to stay updated

Don't let alarming words in headlines send the wrong message. Dr. Tom James helps you sift through jargon to reveal the truth.

The headline read, "Cancer Breakthrough Promises Hope to Breast Cancer Victims." Makes it sound like a compelling story.

What's in a headline?

The point of a headline - of course - is to grab your attention so you'll want to buy the newspaper or magazine or spend more time on the Website. While the above headline is fictional, it looks like headlines we've all seen.

What do you think when you see such sensational headlines? Here's some advice:

  • If the headline looks too good to be true, chances are it is.
  • Have some healthy skepticism when certain words appear in the headline. Words such as "breakthrough," "promising," and "victim," all create an emotional response.
  • Look to see if the information comes from a medical journal or a press release. Certain medical journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Science, JAMA, and Annals of Internal Medicine all have high standards for publication. So do many other specialty journals. But there are also magazines that publish opinion rather than science.
  • Check out Health News Review on the Web for grades on health news reporting. Experienced health news reporters developed this Website.

Medical science advances slowly, with studies being repeated by others to ensure reliable results. That means that there are very few “breakthroughs.” Thorough medical researchers don't want to accept as true the results from a single study. They want to see it repeated with the same outcomes. Most advances come by adding to past improvements. This means that medical achievements come in increments and not sudden "breakthroughs."

The problem, of course, with medical sensationalism is that it may give people false hope or - on the other hand - undue fears. This happened recently when Time magazine ran an article titled “How Safe Are Vaccines?” complete with a picture of a 6-week-old infant who was “bravely facing his five immunizations.” The caption serves as another example of using emotionally-charged words to set a tone rather than provide facts.

The actual article in Time was a well-balanced review of the science, opinion, and government actions concerning evaluation of new vaccines for children. But the headline caused enough concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics had to send parent information to the nation's pediatricians. After the Time article and other sensational television pieces, immunization rates fell. The following year saw the country's first outbreaks of measles in years.

Clearly, there can be significant consequences to sensational reporting or medical stories.

What it means to you

By using common sense in reading these medical articles you will be able to pick out the important kernels of truth. Discuss those with your doctor to get some other interpretation of medical news articles of interest. Become an informed consumer of medical news.
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