It is a rare medical news story that gets high marks

Like you, I receive a whole bunch of breaking medical news every day, from television, radio, newspapers, direct mail, email alerts, press releases, and multiple websites.

Is any of it worth my time, my attention, or even a change in my knowledge, attitude, behavior, or medical practice? How can I quickly tell?

A medical journalist from Minnesota named Gary Schwitzer recognized this problem many years ago and created a service that will help all of us, in and outside of medicine and medical journalism, to spend our time and direct our attention wisely.

Schwitzer’s service is called Health News Review and widely publicizes a set of criteria to apply to medical stories reported in the popular media.

While his approach cannot prevent fraud, liars, and fabricators, a careful use of his criteria can help the reader filter out what is likely to be real junk, or even worse, harmful.

Medical Reporting Rules to live (or die) by:

  1. How available is the treatment/test/product/procedure to the likely reader/viewer/listener at the time of the report?
  2. What is the cost or charge for the test/treatment/product or procedure mentioned in the story? To the patient? The insurance company? The government?
  3. Is there evidence of disease mongering in the story? Does it oversell or exaggerate a condition or create unwarranted fear?
  4. Does the story seem to grasp and convey the quality of the evidence supporting the basis for the study?
  5. Does the article provide appropriate balance about harms that might be caused by the treatment/test/product/procedure that constitutes the basis for the story?
  6. Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach? Much that is purported to be new, really is not.
  7. How does the story frame the relative quantitative value of a new treatment, test, product, or procedure and place the benefits in context with others, especially dealing with absolute and relative values?
  8. Did the author and editor of the medical news story rely solely or largely on a press release or did they also seek and quote other sources?
  9. Was there an independent source and were any possible conflicts of interests of sources disclosed in the article?
  10. Does the story provide the context of treatment/test/product/procedure other than those that are being reported?

Applying these criteria, it is a rare medical news story in the American public media that gets high marks. Pity.

The network television reporters with the largest viewership seem to get the worst grades; and they seem not to care. An even greater pity.

Anyway, you can protect yourself better by applying Schwitzer’s criteria.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit for more health policy news.

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  • Robbie Bremner

    The NHS has been doing something similar – rebutting poor medical news stories – for several years as part of it’s “Behind the Headlines” section:

  • russ


    Yes, facts. What Chubby Mike Moore and NBC News can’t understand.

    Funniest story on NBC News recently — “teacher shortage.”  Right — one teaching job opens, they get 100s of applicants. Some “shortage.”

  • Jim Jaffe

    Gary’s providing a real public service and deserves applause.  At best, he’ll make some media users a bit more sophisticated, but he’s not about to change the way journalists behave because the values he espouses are quite different than theirs.  Journalism is a competitive environment where reporters regularly say their story is more important than that coming from their colleagues of competitors.  In the health/medical area, they have a simple mantra as their construct their stories — to maximize the audience by projecting a simple message “read this or die.”
    So stories of marginal progress that COULD help a modest number of people are inevitably presented as having big impact– or they’re not presented at all.  Playing beat the press and faulting the media for this won’t help.  They know what their market wants.

  • Expat Doctor Mom

    Thanks for the link will check this out!

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