Elmo and George Washington University get caught up in researcher-PR hype

GWU-seal-150x150Elmo-150x150Elmo and the Colonials won’t make it as a new Saturday morning hit cartoon show. But the colorful characters might play a tangential part in some important lessons for consumers and some supposedly serious institutions on preserving the public trust in published, medical-scientific research.

Healthnewsreview.org, a nonprofit and independent watchdog of health information, rightly has taken George Washington University to task for issuing a Pollyannaish, inaccurate news release on a Colonials’ study on whether text messages could help curb expectant moms’ smoking. The hype from the school, about research from GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, first proclaimed:

Text messaging program may help pregnant women kick the smoking habit

But after healthnewsreview.org faulted that title for putting a positive spin on a study that had negative results, GWU pulled the press release, only to put it back up a day later with a new headline:

Text messaging program may help some pregnant women kick the smoking habit

Did the addition of the qualifier “some” in front of “pregnant women” spare the university flaks from professional scorn?

Nope. As the watchdog site points out, the piece has a basic problem that one word couldn’t cure: It’s wrong.

As some impressive experts have told healthnewsreview.org, the GWU study hypes an angle unsupported by the research it wants to draw attention to, or as the site has reported:

The reduction in smoking rates for the study overall was not statistically significant — full stop. That should have been the headline. It’s not acceptable for the release to bury the lack of statistical significance in the body of the text while claiming benefits in the headline.

GWU’s media relations chief says the school won’t do anything more with its flawed original release beside tweak the headline. But GWU will reach out to key reporters who might report on it, she said, adding that she and her colleagues would review their news release processes.

They should, because as healthnewsreview.org has pointed out, in the internet age, scrubbing materials once they get out, can be problematic. Greater diligence before their issue may be the best protection against flawed or questionable materials getting published by supposedly serious research institutions.

It is interesting to ask if the GWU news release, though not absolutely medical in its nature, was examined by an Institutional Review Board or its internal analog? Panels like these, made up of specialists and community leaders, oversee medical research and experimentation as part of a rigorous process to protect patients and the public. IRBs also can save lay writers and editors from embarrassing uses of text and image or from wrong interpretations.

But as Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics and a writer on public health policy, including for the New York Times “Upshot” column, points out, even prestigious, peer reviewed, medical-scientific publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) struggle these days with problematic studies and reporting on them.

He has delved into the growing unease about the work of Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and his colleagues. JAMA, in a rare move, has just retracted a 2012 study by them purporting to show that kids could be led to eat better, foregoing a cookie if also given the choice of an apple with a colorful sticker on it carrying a character like Sesame Street’s Elmo.

But, oops, lots of problems have surfaced in this research and other works like it. Oops, the researchers have fessed up, for example, that the youngsters in the 2012 Elmo study weren’t 8- to 10-years-olds as described but 3- to 5-years-old. Big difference. And a real head-scratch as to how an error like that occurs.

Carroll walks through the details and challenges that researchers, especially those working in nutrition such as those at Cornell, can encounter. Good for you, Dr. Carroll. But this situation, and the one at GWU, are disconcerting and shouldn’t be waved at, at all.

In my practice, I see not only the major harms that patients can suffer while seeking medical services but also the havoc that sketchy medical-scientific research can cause, particularly when hired guns spout off about it in complex medical malpractice lawsuits.

Yes, academic medical centers, big hospitals, and colleges and universities find themselves thrust into a new, 24/7 media world where they must vie in the marketplace for money and audiences, especially via pumped up “public information” services and catchy advertising. And researchers are under huge pressure these days to publish or perish, especially as the competition grows ever fiercer for funding for studies. That said, there can’t be any room for bad data or hyped conclusions in serious, published research. Besides stepping up to take responsibility for the work that gets published under their names, researchers must work hand-in-glove with media relations and other institutional communicators, both to get valuable study results to audiences who need them but also to ensure this is done in accurate, fair, ethical, and responsible fashion.

This is no easy task. Communicators at the University of Maryland have stumbled badly in this area with a dumb controversy about chocolate milk. There are worries that big problems await no less an august institution than the National Institutes of Health—this because NIH researchers are on the brink of allowing Big Alcohol to fund a major study about, yup, you guessed it, liquor drinking and Americans’ health. And if you want to see how messy research credibility becomes by the instant, check out Retraction Watch, a site that tracks and reports on problematic scientific and medical studies and when and how the works get pulled—or maybe not.

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