Dangers of the hospital press release

You may have noticed the rash of medical news spewing from your favorite news outlets with greater frequency. As a medical professional you probably cringe as you envision the calls that are about to flood your office, “Doctor Smith, I heard a report on the news that this drug you prescribed to help me quit smoking is bad for my health!” or, “I want a referral to The Hoffenheimer Institute to get peduncular ray beam therapy for my hypertension, they are reporting great results!” And, like me, you probably curse the media, as the stream of bogusness is regurgitated in high def.  My advice? Don’t hate the game, hate the players.

The world of medical journalism is an ever evolving competitive landscape. A high-stakes competition between various medical centers, medical societies, drug manufacturers, all jockeying for press, prestige, research funding, and patient volumes. The winners are endowed with brand-name recognition and the cash money that goes with it (i.e. grant money and well insured patients). The losers get sloppy seconds.

By far the most cost-effective weapon in this war of P.R is the press release. Get out the news that your prestigious community college effectively kills cancer cells in one treatment, and the free air time that ensues likely far exceeds your measly 25K per year advertising budget. Never mind that the study was not repeatable, that the cancer cells were in a Petri dish, and soaked in Clorox. You can bet that the news outlets will get the word out there for public consumption with little to no filtering or critical appraisal, and never visit the topic again. Mrs. Jones will never know whether that cancer treatment ever worked, what she does know is, “wow that place is doing big things, maybe I should go there for my knee surgery.”

The strange voodoo of the academic press release was the subject of a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.  Not surprisingly, only 17 percent of the time was the subject of the press release a study that these authors would describe as well designed. In less than half the releases was there any sort of caveat that the results may be over-hyped, or that the results were preliminary, or that they might be wrong, or that further study in the area was needed, or that the authors might be morons. Most of the people writing and releasing these reports to the media did not have any particular training by their respective employer on how to communicate the findings in these studies to the media. Furthermore, the press departments also kept tabs on the number of media hits they got, likely helping justify their existence.

My hope was that perhaps this Annals article might mark the first step towards a future in which the medical community is more aware of the questionable science promoted through the press release. And with the tizzy kicked up after updated recomendations concerning breast cancer screening, one would think the medical community would have learned its lesson. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than the mighty National Cancer Institute  tooted its own horn over preliminary results from a lung cancer screening trial, and assured us that the full study would be published in a major journal soon (… finally published this summer).

To date I know of no clear guidelines or recommendations from the academic community on how to put the brakes on this new area of medico-capitalistic journalism. And with an aging population looking for any way to enjoy their tube feeds for just a few days longer, you can can bet the media will keep feeding it to them.

So for the time being, lets all  look forward to hearing about how the University of (insert local area here) killed cancer cells using the power of their new InstaRay Magnetromic Therapy.

Deep Ramachandran is a pulmonary and critical care physician who blogs at CaduceusBlog.

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  • http://twitter.com/HeartSisters carolyn thomas

    Thanks Dr. R for this timely warning.  Trouble is: there is very little appetite from “the academic community on how to put the brakes on this new area of medico-capitalistic journalism”.  Marketing-based medicine is a growth industry!  And it’s not just the local community college trying to create a buzz out there – consider the appallingly inappropriate air time from ’60 Minutes’ of the Kanzius cancer cure machine.

    I’ve spent 35+ years in the public relations field, and I can tell you that if the folks sending out press releases from academia, Big Pharma, device makers, patent holders et al stopped sending them out tomorrow, they’d replace them in a heartbeat with Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and any other possible marketing buzz vehicles imaginable.  Some already engage in what’s known as ‘sock puppetry’ PR by posting corporate-friendly comments on online forums posing as satisfied patients. To help sort through the hype, all health care professionals should be regular readers of ‘Health News Review’ – http://www.healthnewsreview.org/   If necessary, print off some of the worst offenders evaluated there (media articles that score zero out of a possible nine-point rating system) and show them to your patients.  See also: “Putting a Positive Spin on Negative Research Results” at http://ethicalnag.org/2010/12/14/positive-spin-negative-medical-research-results/

  • Lara Romanowski

    There is a small but growing community of educated professionals who go through training to be proficient in communicating health information accurately and ethically. I’m proud to be a member of that community, having obtained my Masters degree in Health Communication from Tufts University School of Medicine. It is an interdisciplinary program where I trained in the best of both the medical/public health and communications worlds. It sounds like we need more HCOMM alums filling the ranks at these corporations, hospitals and academic research centers.