Dubious reports undermine credibility of media, medical researchers

April 25, 2006|By IRA R. ALLEN

WASHINGTON -- The Public Library of Science, a free online journal, devoted a recent issue to what has become known as disease mongering - the practice by drug companies of taking routine, transient maladies and creating scary new diseases. They get away with it partly by taking advantage of gullible journalists trying to satiate a perceived public demand for health news.

The demand for medical news is a function of the average age of those who consume news - about 60 for the evening news shows and 55 for newspaper readers. They are the market for drugs to treat serious life-threatening diseases, for certain, but also for a horror show of new medical problems once previously thought to be badges of age: erectile dysfunction, restless leg syndrome, heartburn and insomnia.

The American Journal of Managed Care recently issued a study showing that most Americans get their news from television, that health news on the air increased dramatically in recent years and that, typically, the stories were misfocused, uninformative and often rife with "egregious errors ... that could harm viewers who relied on the information."

That's the good news. The bad news is the corruption of science in the name of commerce.

You would have had to have been in a coma not to have heard at least one news account during National Sleep Awareness Week in late March that one in four Americans - about 70 million people - suffers from sleep disorders, even though that includes anyone who woke up grumpy a little too early some time in the past six months. According to one National Institutes of Health estimate, as few as 28 million have chronic, debilitating insomnia.

This year, the sleep industry, which sponsors National Sleep Awareness Week, focused its attention on the bedtime blues of teenagers - tomorrow's market for legal drugs - finding that 45 percent do not get eight hours of sleep on school nights. Only 20 percent get nine hours or more. This is hardly a public health problem. But it was made to seem so based on a telephone survey of 1,600 people, representing only the 27 percent of those polled who picked up the phone. Not one observational study, not one clinical trial.

Soon after, the prestigious Institute of Medicine was co-opted into issuing a widely reported, scientific-sounding tome on sleeplessness. It was a wake-up call commissioned by a syndicate of sleep advocates, including the National Sleep Foundation, an organization embraced by the sleeping pill and mattress manufacturers who fund it.

The next day, the news media wrote about the next public health disaster - that migraines in teenagers are not adequately treated. That study was done by the National Headache Foundation, which gets most of its support from - guess whom? - 25 companies that think not enough people are taking enough of their prescription drugs.

Sleep disorders and chronic headaches are legitimate problems, but so are marketing schemes disguised as science.

Not long after that, The Washington Post reported that the results of clinical trials on a variety of anti-schizophrenia drugs depended on which drug company sponsored them.

Even the Johns Hopkins University got tangled up in selling its good name. This time it was, indeed, journalists who discovered that the university was in partnership with a cosmetics developer masquerading as a health products firm.

The renowned university would put its stamp of approval on the firm's advertising claims and the company would put Hopkins people on its board. When the company started advertising what looked like a Hopkins endorsement of the product, the university president stepped in and made the deal a little less obviously onerous.

There is no one answer to most health issues, but there are no answers at all when information is muddled. Consumers need their news media to tell them, at minimum, whether a new drug or therapy is actually available, what it costs, how solid was the underlying research, who paid for it, what the side effects are, what the other treatment options are and what the skeptics are saying.

Until this is routine, the credibility of both the news media and the medical research establishment will remain shaky.

Ira R. Allen, a former reporter and editor, is vice president of the Center for the Advancement of Health. His e-mail is iallen@cfah.org.

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