Sunday, September 30, 2007

Poynter Online - Unhealthy Advocacy: Journalists and Health Screening Tests

Poynter Online - Unhealthy Advocacy: Journalists and Health Screening Tests: " Journalists and news organizations sometimes seem to abandon their usual healthy journalistic skepticism when it comes to coverage of certain health screening tests. While the journalistic intent here may be benign, the practice may produce more harm than good. I lead a team that monitors U.S. health news coverage each day for a Web project, Health News Review, that evaluates and grades health news stories. In the course of that work, I've seen surprisingly strong evidence of bias in favor of screening tests. Some stories, even by reputable journalists, ignore the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, probably the most important, unbiased, balanced source on such questions. And the American College of Physicians' recently released guideline on mammography for women in their 40s doesn't seem to be getting the attention it deserves, either. What gets left out of these stories is the important concept that both benefits and harms can come from screening tests. You can screen many people and find a few problem cases. But in the process, there are always false-positive test results that suggest people have a problem when they really don't. That leads to anxiety, more testing (some of which carries its own risks) and more expense. Also, with today's more sensitive screening tests, some forms of "pseudo-disease" may be found -- early hints of possible problems without clear evidence about whether they will go on to create real trouble or not. That can mean many more people are inappropriately labeled with "disease" and treated. (An excellent source on these issues is the book "Should I Be Tested For Cancer? Maybe Not and Here's Why" by Dartmouth College's Dr. Gil Welch.)"

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