Ph.D. turns to Twitter to rat out too common species of medical research hype

mouse-300x169James Heathers is a Ph.D. with expertise in scientific methods and data. He works in a behavioral science lab at Northeastern University in Boston. He’s young, adaptive, and savvy enough to participate in social media, especially Twitter. There, he saw a problem and a challenge with the way medical scientific findings get presented to sizable audiences online.

As someone accustomed to dealing with academic and scientific rigor, he paused and thought he could title his planned effort, “handling the translational gap during the science media transition.” But this Aussie has a sense of humor—and he wanted impact. He thought a straight-laced approach would be as “popular as cabbage sandwiches.”

So, instead, he focused in on a broad number of reputable studies that he thinks get misrepresented and grab unjustified popular attention. This research involves the extrapolation of early results in animal tests, making them sound — incorrectly — as if they instantly have meaning for people. He created a Twitter account that is garnering lots of attention, including tens of thousands of unexpected followers.

Its popularity may result from its simple approach and title. Heathers says it’s the reaction experts often have when reading animal studies promoted to excess, throwing them across the room, and slapping their forehead while exclaiming, “Just say In mice!”

For example?

heathers-150x150Heathers says he respects researchers who have invested time, energy, and expertise in solid studies that get massaged by PR folks in hospitals, universities, and research institutions. Public attention can be beneficial to careers and to get further research funding.

But he says he and others in a given field waste time looking up intriguing materials, only to find them hyped. The misinformation also can be harmful to the sick and their loved ones, giving them false hope, or sending them down wrong trails with their doctors for approaches that are far from ready.

Rigorous and randomized clinical trials — the gold standard for such testing that indicates a drug or therapy may be ready for use in humans — occur in phases and can take years from start to finish. It may be popular in some parts of the press to write about early-stage research, including studies that show glimmers in initial animal tests. But shoddy stories raise false hopes.

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the ordeals that the sick and injured go through to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. Their challenges grow more daunting by the day with the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of therapies and prescription medications, with all too many drugs proving to be dangerous. Patients need hope but their desperation should not be preyed on with tabloid-style medical, health, and wellness woo. Juries have punished practitioners for promoting not only counter factual but injurious medical notions, but they proliferate, as is shown by the tsunami of poorly evidenced stem cell claims (including cases in which patients were blinded at a clinic that remains open).

Heathers says he seeks to be discriminating in his subtle calling out of over heated reporting on studies, labeling them on Twitter only “In mice,” and leaving readers to dig in and use their own keen minds to see the basis of propounded findings. Just doing this is a help, though readers may want to educate themselves further with available resources. This can be a key way to avoid patients pestering doctors about unneeded or unfounded medical treatments, a practice that itself can lead to over testing, over diagnosis, and over treatment. It’s also good to see ways that social media, the darlings now of audiences young and old, can be used in useful rather than harmful ways for our health.

Twitter offered a recent model as to why consumers of medical science reports need to be savvy and skeptical. Per Heathers, this wave of Tweets and re-Tweets could have been labeled, In Pigs. Social media blew up over the work of Yale medical school experts who fetched brains from pigs decapitated hours earlier for food. They bathed the free-standing brains in a special nutrient solution, and measured electrical activity in select cells, finding that some neurons in the 32 “dead” animals still fired if stimulated. They failed to detect coordinated, organized activity that might be considered brain consciousness.

Heavy-breathing accounts of this experiment, however, suggested that researchers had stood at the ready to cut off their work if the animals regained sentience. Reports extrapolated how the minimal activity found at the cellular level might affect decisions about organ transplants in people or legal standards of brain death in humans. Or could it will lead to new paths in treating strokes or brain injuries? Well, maybe, as medical science historians will recall what resulted from Luigi Galvani’s 18th century experiments with lightning and twitching frog legs?

Sadly, it also may be likely that medical science misinformation or disinformation can result in harms: The nation’s struggling with this now, with coast-to-coast infectious disease outbreaks due to hesitancy or counter factual rejection of experience and stringent studies about the benefits of vaccination. Serious complications can result from these illnesses, which also can be fatal. The uninformed have tried to dismiss them just as common childhood conditions.

We need to do better, to base our treatment and prevention decisions on medical science, facts, and evidence.

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