Medical breakthrough headlines are over the top

Patients should have as much access to information as possible. The more they know — the more informed decisions about their health and life that can be made. However, faulty headlines about new therapies are infiltrating news outlets left and right. Many times this information can be misleading, and it is difficult for patients, their friends, and family members to decipher.

Lately, there has been a surge in the release of novel cancer diagnostics and therapy leading to an outburst of news coverage. Understandably, people want to find better ways to detect and treat cancer. However, it is of the utmost importance to go back to the data and review exactly what it is that is being written.

Recently, very bold statements have been made and are floating around news outlets such as people claiming to have the “cure for cancer within a year” or research finding a new “detection for Alzheimer’s.” One of these is more likely, while the other makes for a catchy headline. If proven wrong, there is not a single person that wouldn’t hope that it is more than a catchy headline. This leads to the question: Are many of these early press releases targeting the general population with bold claims without having enough evidence to be supported by the scientific community?

The first amendment guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting restriction of the press and individual’s speech. This is from the United States Constitution and is our right. It is a blessing to live in a country that provides and respects this right. However, is this same right that is provided to Americans also a cause of misleading information and facts? Absolutely.

Information cannot and should not be censored, but it should be looked at closely before jumping to conclusions or assuming it to be true. In medicine, patients’ lives are at stake. So while headlines may be catchy, a patient turning down therapy because they are waiting on something that they read about on the internet, that is not close to approval, or want to use a special herb because that has never been medically tested can be dangerous.

Many individuals that are writing these articles and interpreting the data to be released to the general public do not hold a medical degree or have not been trained to interpret the scientific data. Patients will then come into doctors’ offices not asking questions or having an open dialogue about how they should be treated, but instead proclaiming that this is what they want because it is the “next best thing” that is just released. It is the responsibility of a physician to be knowledgeable and up to date on different treatments and diagnostic tests. However, it makes it difficult when physicians may not be up to date on this material that has no evidence and support. False proclamations of grandeur, if you will.

Well, what are the benefits? Headlines may attract readers, and when properly reviewed may lead to further research and discussion. It can lead to open dialogue with the patient’s health care providers that may not have been initially explored. It can give hope. But this same hope the community yearns for may sometimes be premature and/or misleading.

So at the end, what can be done? These headlines and false information need to be combated with science and evidence. Individuals need to be vocal in supporting verified information and fighting against these deceptive claims. We need to continue to work towards improving these tests, treatments, and our care. When a breakthrough does occur, it will be meaningful and something to not only talk about but implement to help patients.

Joshua Mansour is a hematology-oncology physician.

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