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Media reports on medicines often lack accuracy, study says

May 31, 2000
Web posted at: 6:25 p.m. EDT (2225 GMT)

In this story:

Numerical data, risk information lacking

Financial ties important


ATLANTA (CNN) -- News reports in newspapers and television broadcasts often exaggerate the benefits of new medicines, ignore their risks and fail to disclose their costs, according to a study reported in the June 1 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study also examined potential conflicts of interest. Only 39 percent of news stories citing experts with financial ties to the drug being studied disclosed those ties, the researchers found.

The authors concluded that journalists need to focus more on who can be helped by a particular drug and how much, the risks and costs of therapy, and what the interests may be of the people who are promoting the drug.

"We hope this study provides some focus for journalists and editors who are continually striving for greater accuracy in medical coverage," said Dr. Stephen Soumerai, a study co-author and a Harvard medical school professor of ambulatory care and prevention.

Numerical data, risk information lacking

Of 207 news reports assessed, 40 percent did not offer any numerical analysis of a drug’s benefits, leaving the public without any benchmark to judge the overall value of the drug.

Of the 124 stories that used numbers, 83 percent reported only relative benefits, not actual numbers -- a practice that can be misleading, the researchers said.

As an illustration, they cited reports in 1996 on a new osteoporosis drug. The stories said the drug would reduce hip fractures by 50 percent. But that relative figure exaggerates the power of the drug when compared to the absolute treatment figures.

In absolute terms, only 2 percent of untreated osteoporosis sufferers sustain hip fractures, so the new drug would reduce hip fractures from 2 percent to 1 percent in this population.

Of the stories using numbers, only 15 percent mentioned both relative and absolute benefits.

The researchers also found that 53 percent of the stories studied failed to discuss potential harm of the medications. The reports dealt with the use of aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease, pravastatin (also known as Pravachol) as a cholesterol-reducer used to prevent heart disease, and alendronate (Fosamax) for osteoporosis.

While the three study drugs have many benefits, they also are associated with potential adverse effects, from upset stomach to liver abnormalities.

Authors of the study also said 70 percent of the news accounts reviewed made no mention of cost-effectiveness, which the authors called "an important factor in medical advances."

Financial ties important

The researchers said they examined disclosure of potential conflicts of interest because evidence from other studies "suggests that commercial funding may sometimes be associated with study outcomes that are more favorable to sponsors’ products."

This failure to report such potential conflicts was especially noteworthy among the television reports studied.

Of 14 TV news accounts citing an expert or study with ties to the drug manufacturer, none mentioned that link. Among similar stories in newspapers, about half of the reports disclosed the financial connection between the scientists and the maker of the drug tested.

"The media are a very important source of public-health information," said Soumerai, but consumers are shortchanged by news stories that leave out such information.

Using the Lexis-Nexis database, Soumerai and his colleagues obtained stories from 36 large-circulation newspapers and regional papers written between 1994 and 1998. They also used transcriptions from newscasts of the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC networks.

No reports from Internet news services, magazines or radio were part of the study, primarily because of the difficulty in accessing archives of their news stories, said John Lacey of the Harvard medical school.

The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation based in New York City, was joined by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation in funding the study. Ray Moynihan, the study’s lead author, resides in Sydney, Australia, where he writes medical news for the Australian Financial Review.

"The public increasingly wants and needs to make informed judgments about the use of new medications on the market," said Karen Davis, president of The Commonwealth Fund. "This study shows that newspapers and television need to do a better job in reporting about both the benefits and the risks of new drugs."

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The New England Journal of Medicine

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