Here's a medical story that I helped analyze for HealthNewsReview.org, where I just started as a reviewer. I was the first reviewer for this one.
Can NSAIDs Cut Colorectal Cancer Deaths in Older Women? October 24, 2011
Another rush-to-publish, straight-off-a-news-release, story about a talk at a scientific meeting. At least some caveats were included.
Our Review Summary
The HealthDay story covers a study presented at a recent conference and appropriately states that "conclusions should be viewed as preliminary." However, there were some problems with the article:
- The story reports that women using NSAIDs, at the beginning of the study and also three years later, had a lower rate of death. However, it fails to touch upon another critical piece of the puzzle, in that duration of NSAID use was associated with lower colorectal cancer mortality rates. Specifically, the article neglected to mention that researchers observed "significant reductions in colorectal cancer mortality among women who reported at least 10 years of NSAID use."
- The article fails to mention anything about dosage or any possible side effects associated with prolonged NSAID use.
- This is a one-source story, with a doctoral student providing the only comment on the study. It is also obvious that there was no original reporting beyond the news release.
Why This Matters:
The story highlights the difficulty in covering presentations from academic conferences, especially since a peer-reviewed, published journal article is not yet available for background and reference. Although this was a short story, it could have been much more thorough with a short comment from the principal investigator and also from an independent source.
- Establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure? - NOT APPLICABLE Aspirin and ibuprofen are widely available in US pharmacies.
- Discuss costs?- NOT APPLICABLE
The costs of over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen are not in question.
Avoid "disease-mongering"? - SATISFACTORY There is no disease-mongering, but the story did not provide any context or epidemiology on colorectal cancer.
- Evaluate the quality of evidence?- SATISFACTORY
While the article does caution that the study does not "prove a cause-and-effect," it should have expanded on that statement and explained the limitations of the study. The story does not mention if other variables were accounted for, or if the researchers found any other correlations in their study, which seems likely. However, it does point out that the study "data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal."
Quantify the potential harms? - NOT SATISFACTORY There was no mention of potential harms of prolonged aspirin use, such as stomach bleeding and gastrointestinal ulcers.
- Establish the true novelty of the treatment/test/product/procedure?- NOT APPLICABLE
Aspirin is not a new drug.
Quantify the potential benefits? - NOT SATISFACTORY The only benefit mentioned in the story was the "roughly 30 percent lower rate of death from colorectal cancer," as stated in the press release, but 30 percent of what?
- Appear to rely solely or largely on a news release? - NOT SATISFACTORY The story clearly was based on a press release by the American Association for Cancer Research. Similar language and the same quotations were used. In fact, the press release was a bit more thorough than the actual HealthDay article. There was not any evidence of original reporting.
- Use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest? - NOT SATISFACTORY There were no independent sources cited from outside the study. The only comment came from a doctoral student at the University of Washington.
- Compare the new approach with existing alternatives? - NOT SATISFACTORY The story failed to detail any existing alternatives for colorectal cancer, such as targeted drug therapies for people with advanced colon cancer.