March 18, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)

Medical News

Most medical people despise the press, holding attitudes not totally unfamiliar today. Reporters tend to be suckers for every quack, half-quack, over-eager scientist, or naive country doctor who thought that he had a serum to cure tuberculosis, a herbal remedy for cancer, or a new surgical procedure to rejuvenate the aged.

Michael Bliss, 1984

I routinely watch an hour of television news every evening. It seems to me that almost every week there is a new medical research breakthrough. I suspect that these so-called discoveries are a consequence of a public relations person's activities for some company or organization. Every time that a company's product is mentioned on television, a large amount of money is deposited in the company's bank account. The major goal of every company is to make money, and any method, no matter how crooked, may be considered justifiable in pursuit of the almighty dollar..

Not only do TV commercials deliberately mislead the viewer, but many of the claims made are outright lies.

What I find most disturbing are not the commercials, which anyone with a brain knows are baloney, but the commercials masquerading as news stories. Most come out of respectable medical journals. However, the context in which they are presented in the media give them the aura of fact, whereas the vast majority of the articles in medical journals represent a mix of statistics, often of questionable validity, and some doctor's theory.

Dean Edell, in his 1999 book Eat Drink and Be Merry tells about how most of these stories come to the TV station as VNRs (Video News Releases) supplied by a "public relations firm representing a manufacturer, lawyer, nonprofit organization, or other interest group trying to induce a news department to put it on the air." A station receives thousands of these each year and many are aired. In other words, what you may think is a news story is really a commercial.

Having spent much of my life in cancer research, I am very aware of the uncertainty of most research, particularly medical research. Many people have died as a consequence of medical fads presented as fact.

Why does a researcher do a particular experiment? There are two main reasons. The first is to find something out. The researcher asks a question and the experiment is expected to provide an answer. The other purpose is to publish a paper. I remember a physician who was candidating for the position of head of a medical school department. He was in his forties and had over 300 papers to his credit. This is not unusual. Such people are referred to by scientists, with a sneer, as "paperhangers." Much of the content of medical journals are written by paperhangers. The pressure to publish is immense. There is a slogan in the academic world, "Publish or perish." This is often used as an excuse to publish large numbers of papers of questionable validity.

What makes a paper publishable in the best of journals? It has to have important results. If the experiment proves nothing, the chances of it getting published diminishes. Could this affect the honesty of the author? It might. The funds to do the research and the drugs that are tested are usually supplied by the drug company. Would the drug company choose a doctor to test their product who might find it to be worthless? I doubt it.

What I am saying is that it would be a good idea to take anything that you read or see and hear on radio or television with ample salt. This in spite of a warning to avoid excessive amounts of sodium.

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