In an earlier entry, I was critical of what I call the “press release” variety of medical reporting in which the news report is based heavily or entirely on a press release by individuals or institutions who have a financial or other vested interest in shaping the presentation. In many, if not the majority, of these the difference between informing and marketing is not discernible to me. It is therefore only fair to give credit for what I think is an example of excellent medical reporting. As described below, I was also impressed at the value added to conventional newspaper reporting by its associated Internet capabilities. The article provides an example of the pre-publication embargo system used by some major medical journals with what I think are both positive and negative implications.
The Article and Report.
On Tuesday, February 8, New York Times reporter Denise Grady published an article, “Lymph Node Study Shakes Pillar of Breast Cancer Care.” My sometimes faulty memory tells me I saw her article Monday evening on the New York Times website. The article Ms. Grady reported on was officially published in the February 9 issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Axillary Dissection vs No Axillary Dissection in Woman With Invasive Breast Cancer and Sentinel Node Metastasis, ” by Armando E. Giuliano and coauthors; vol. 305:569, 2011. I received my personal copy of the Journal on Wednesday the 9th.
I spent over two hours studying this seven page paper. It was heavy going for me and would have been largely impenetrable to a layperson. It goes against my grain to be paternal, but there is no way for a layperson to understand the significance of the research or how it might relate to them without help. In fact, even I needed some help to put things in perspective, and I confess some of that help came from Denise Grady.
To summarize the paper in an obscenely brief manner, 891 women with breast cancer that had already metastasized as far as the lower lymph nodes in her axilla (armpit) were randomized to 2 different treatment plans. Half the women went on to what was then the standard treatment of extensive removal of all the lymph nodes in their axilla. The other half had no additional surgery beyond the biopsy of the low sentinel node that showed the metastatic cancer. All of the women had a lumpectomy and radiation to the breast, and almost all had additional adjuvant or prophylactic chemotherapy. The patients were followed for as long as eight years. There was no difference in the survival or cancer recurrence rate in either group. Continue reading “On Excellent Medical Reporting”
My discussion of the reporting on the extremely high rate of major spinal fusion surgery in Louisville has generated its own follow-up. On Jan 17, Courier-Journal reporter Patrick Howington contributed a front-page article about the legal battle of five Louisville orthopedic surgeons over an estimated $60 million in royalty fees.
Wow! The Chamber of Commerce must be proud. This is the kind of big-time health care and research money on which Louisville’s city fathers, and its business and university communities have pinned their hopes for the future. So why am I embarrassed over this? Should I be? Would I be if the money were coming to me? I think there is plenty of embarrassment to go around.
It is embarrassing for me as a physician to see other physicians fighting so publicly over money. While certainly within their legal rights, this dispute over money by these professionals reminds us that even for physicians, the practice of medicine is at its base a business. There has always been an inherent tension in the patient-physician relationship: what is best for the patient may not always be what is best for the physician. The professional ideal resolves any such conflicts in favor of the patient. As more and more outside players insert themselves between and around the patient-physician relationship, the vectors of tension become more complex and more difficult to resolve. I predict we will increasingly appreciate such policy difficulties as the structure of our healthcare system changes. Our debates over capitation, managed care, or physicians as employees provide examples where the nature of the patient-physician relationship has been tested. During the last year in Louisville, several prominent contract battles between insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals continues to disrupt the vulnerable contract between patients and their physicians. Continue reading “Battles Royale in Louisville”
Courier-Journal reporter Darla Carter led off New Year’s Day with a front page article “Health news [is a] prescription for confusion.” I agree with her. Is coffee bad for you of not? Should postmenopausal women take estrogens or not? Should men get a routine PSA test for prostate cancer or not? When and how often should I get a mammogram? Should I get chest x-rays to screen for lung cancer or not? Should my child get immunized or not? Our daily media is full of headlines and stories that address medical scientific issues and their application to medical care. Even if one is not paying attention, it is obvious that the recommendations appearing in these news articles and segments conflict with each other on a regular basis.
It is this article that stimulated me to get off my duff with this blog. For years I have been pulling my hair out about the way medical information is presented to the public. The volume of health and medical information presented to the lay and professional public daily is overwhelming. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly stand to watch television any more because of all the drug ads. The only thing that is worse are the campaign ads, but at least these are with us only part of each year.
We are assaulted by print, broadcast, and electronic media everywhere we go. The nature of the information ranges widely. It ranges from “news,” advocacy sponsored material, through press releases supporting every possible position. The content passes further down the social-value scale through entertainment, snake oil, and outright fraud. The overwhelming volume of health-related material with which we are sandbagged is advertising: somebody is trying to induce us to buy something that will translate into income for them. There is nothing wrong with information: more and better information is badly needed. But we live in a time when food is sold like medicine, and medicine sold like soap powder. Which hospital in my town really has an infection control problem? What is the basis of a claim that a given product or service is the “best,” or even works at all for that matter? Such information is hard to come by– if it is available to the public at all. Continue reading “Does Medical Reporting Help or Hurt?”