Caution: Bad Medical Reporting Ahead

Although much of the media continue to issue breathless reports about new drugs, new lab findings, new this, new that, some watchdogs remain vigilant about identifying inflated claims and cozy researcher-business relationships. Two such reports that recently came under this welcome scrutiny involved treatments for cystic fibrosis and heart disease.

The reporter for both was Paul Raeburn, whose work at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker was recognized by Gary Schwitzer, another reporter whose mission is truth, not promotion, on his website,

Raeburn’s recent article “Cystic fibrosis breakthrough, or Wall Street coup?” called out Vertex Pharmaceuticals for releasing study results only when it could control the flow of information about it, and the journalists who agreed to the terms. Reporters wrote that that there was great potential for the new treatment, and that it probably would boost the company’s stock.

As Raeburn reported, a journalist for Forbes acknowledged that “The company shared the data with me ahead of its release this morning on the condition that I only talk to Vertex executives, Ramsey [one of the study’s authors], and a representative of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which funded the drugs development. I think the data are strongly positive, but I haven’t had a chance to show the results to outside experts as I usually would.”

Really? Why would a good journalist publish a story that wasn’t completely reported?

As Raeburn noted, after the managed news went public, the company’s stock rose 40% on the NASDAQ. He also estimated that the happily reported new treatment, a combination of drugs, might cost $250,000 per patient.

“It’s clear,” he wrote, “that this research was a huge success for the company’s shareholders. What’s less clear, partly because of the restrictions on the reporting, is exactly how helpful it might one day be to the multimillionaire cystic fibrosis families who can afford it, or whose insurance companies pay for it.”

Raeburn also took issue recently with a story in the New York Times about a new study that included the tired and now meaningless phrase, “potentially offering the first new class of drugs to combat heart disease in decades, experts say.”

Wrote Raeburn, “Care to hazard a guess at where that prediction will be in 15 years?”

Some people might see his response as cynical. Others more familiar with how much medical R&D loves hyperbole see it as necessary perspective.

The Times story included the boilerplate statement about experts cautioning people that developing a drug based on the rosy research takes years and that there are no guarantees they would work. But is that really sufficient cover for every contingency? Interesting, hopeful research is not a solid footing from which to draw sweeping conclusions. It’s just … interesting, hopeful research.

Raeburn says reporters need to stop writing “promise-and-unpromise” statements, and focus on querying “researchers more carefully about exactly how and when their research might lead to new treatments. What problems remain to be solved? What are the potential side effects? How much might it cost? Would the FDA be likely to approve it? Does it raise ethical questions?”

We would add that consumers of news reports about health and medicine read and listen to them more carefully. Consume the news by asking yourself if Raeburn’s questions were addressed, and if not, is this the whole story? A true story? See our blog, “Coverage of Health and Medical News Often Goes for Glitz, Not Science.”

Don’t alter your behavior, your health outlook, on the basis of a single news report, especially if it’s less than excellent.

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