Savvy health news consumers are seeing a run of whopper stories

embarrass-300x172Health news readers look out: media organizations seem to be struggling with an outbreak of the whoopsies—as in, “Whoopsie, if we had more sense, we wouldn’t have put out the story you just read.”

The flare-up of embarrassing content, as chronicled well by the Healthnewsreview.org, a health information watchdog site, also seems to be a double problem for some media outlets that ironically have just warned their audiences about fake news.

As always, the dubious, low-value information concentrates on diet and nutrition topics — for instance, that small amounts of alcohol or coffee sway cancer risk or that eating chocolate makes your heart beat more regularly.

It relies on thin or sketchy “research” that is based on spurious observation or correlation (Hey, did you know that more people fatally drown in swimming pools when Nicholas Cage appears in movies?) The stories often are terse and source-light.

But as conscientious hype busters know too sadly and well, it’s risky these days to allow tainted information and poor thinking to proliferate, especially because too many people are making too important decisions without fact or evidence—which can be hugely detrimental in medical and health care matters.

In my practice, I see the huge harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I’m a big advocate of their pursuit of a fundamental right in medical care: informed consent. That’s a term that expresses a concept at the core of any free society: Each person has a right to decide what to do with his or her own body, so long as he or she doesn’t hurt someone else. It, of course, covers medical care. It means that doctors, as experts in their field, must share sufficient information with patients so they understand drugs or therapies and can freely and fully understand whether they want them.

We can’t make critical individual choices about our medical care without informed consent, and, similarly, we can’t make vital legal and policy decisions without sound information from important sources like news organizations.

We can look at stories and try to see:

  • Do they appear in publications or web sites of high value and trustworthiness from organizations we know and find acceptable?
  • Are they based on good sources, including information from excellent research centers, hospitals, and doctors, or publications in reputable, well-known medical journals?
  • Do they include different, independent, and authoritative voices?
  • Are they trying to scare us, or are they promoting a product or approach, or even seeming to?
  • Are many different news organizations writing about this same topic, study, or approach?
  • And what does your common sense tell you?

Diet and nutrition information is especially susceptible to faddish practices supported by weak evidence. It’s difficult to sort out the effect on one food or nutrient, and researchers are hampered by how they can experiment with human subjects and what they eat. We know that medical science moves slowly and carefully to avoid harm. Is a story too breathless in tone or does it make too many claims for breakthroughs or big advances? Does a story really contain very little—it has one real nugget of information at its core and its author may be distracting you by packing distractions around it?

Many audiences may be less aware that the news, unlike medical science, can have some shifting, time-driven, and relative values: Trifles can get attention in slow times. Celebrities and human-interest angles (“people” stories or case studies) can pump up media attention, warranted or not.

Health and medical organizations can steal the media spotlight with big conferences or annual meetings. Cardiologists did so recently during their annual spring session.  And cancer experts will do so in the next week or so—meaning those who follow oncology developments should put on skeptic hats, pronto, reading with care, for example, about results from still unpublished papers or lecturers who may be more casual in public talks than they would be writing for peer review.

Audiences may wish to redouble their caution with online content, keeping in mind it can be deceptive with conflicts of interest or self-dealing and promotion. As Healthnewsreivew.org points out, Big Pharma is filling the web with drug or condition information sites. Many are polished and persuasive, but, at heart, they’re product promotion. Doctors, hospitals, and other providers also are keeping stride with consumers mass migration to the web. Their sites, too, can be beautiful and rich with materials— “research studies,” testimonials, patient stories, information graphics, videos, and more. But.

Cyber cruisers, as the Romans said, caveat emptor.

Here’s one last consideration for consumers: It may be worth supporting a news organization of your choice. Subscribe online, or, yes, in old fashioned print. Circulation and advertising declines continue to hollow out mainstream news outlets, and their burgeoning online audiences—yes, fed recently by those, um, fascinated by President Trump—aren’t yet throwing off the money yet to maintain quality staffing and coverage.

It’s disappointing to note that some whoopsie coverage has even crept into what have been quality news reports in recent days. Alas, even big outfits now may not be deep enough to sustain coverage of the onslaught of health- and medical-related activity unleashed recently by Republicans and the Trump Administration. But maybe we can keep our eyes open, fingers crossed, minds working, and hope that blue-chip news media won’t saddle us with rotten clickbait as they also try to keep us atop those big public policy matters.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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