Study: Media coverage of drugs often misleading

June 1, 2000



By KATHARINE WEBSTER=



Associated Press Writer



A study of how the mass media covers health found that many news stories on drugs fail to report side effects or researchers’ financial ties to the companies that make the medications.



The researchers looked at 207 newspaper and TV stories from 1994 to 1998 on three drugs: aspirin, used to prevent heart disease; pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug also used to prevent heart disease; and alendronate, a drug for preventing and treating osteoporosis.



In the 170 stories that cited experts or scientific studies, half included at least one expert or study with financial ties to the drug’s manufacturer. Of those, only 40 percent reported the potential conflict of interest.



The study also found that fewer than half the news stories reported the drugs’ side effects and only 30 percent noted their cost.



The study by researchers from Harvard University and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a managed care insurer, was being published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, whose incoming editor has been criticized for an apparent conflict of interest involving a drug company.



Wire service stories were included in the study, including some by The Associated Press.



Forty percent of the stories studied did not report the numbers behind the claims of medical benefits. Among the 124 stories that did quantify the benefits of a drug, 83 percent reported only the relative benefit and 2 percent reported only the absolute benefit. Just 15 percent reported both, the study found.



For example, many 1996 stories about an alendronate study said the drug would cut an osteoporosis patient’s risk of a broken hip in half _ the relative benefit. But most failed to include the absolute reduction in risk, from a 2 percent chance of a hip fracture to 1 percent.



Reporting only the relative benefit is “an approach that has been shown to increase the enthusiasm of doctors and patients for long-term preventive treatments and that could be viewed as potentially misleading,” the authors wrote.



Some studies do not report absolute benefits. Others look at drugs in the experimental phase; manufacturers will not release a price until the drug is approved and on the market.



In addition, while the top medical journals require researchers to report their financial ties to drug companies, some studies do not include the information because a researcher fails to disclose it.



“The financial entanglements can be essential information for these science stories, and we want to provide readers whatever details we can,” said Mike Silverman, deputy managing editor for national news of The Associated Press.



“We try very hard to provide an adequate context for the readers, and sometimes the information is available in (medical) journal articles or obtainable in interviews on deadline, and sometimes it isn’t,” said Cornelia Dean, science editor of The New York Times, another of the publications studied.



“I think it makes some really valuable points,” Rob Stein, science editor for The Washington Post, said of the study. “I think there’s a real danger of oversimplifying these things.”



The study was led by Ray Moynihan, a fellow at the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving health care. Funding was provided by the Commonwealth Fund and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, a nonprofit organization linked to the insurer.



The incoming editor of the journal this week responded to reports about an apparent conflict of interest stemming from his ties to drug companies. Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, who becomes editor in July, said he may have made a mistake last year when he praised a new asthma drug made by a company that had hired him to evaluate studies about the medication. He also said he would divest himself of any financial interests in drug companies before taking over as editor.