Medical press releases may exaggerate results and fail to include study limitations

June 04, 2002

HANOVER, NH - Some medical press releases use formats that may exaggerate the perceived importance of findings and do not routinely highlight study limitations, according to DMS researchers in the June 5 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz.

Steven Woloshin, MD, and Lisa M. Schwartz, MD, of Dartmouth Medical School and the White River Junction Veterans Affairs Outcomes Group examined the medical press release process at several high-profile medical journals and reviewed recent releases to evaluate how study findings are presented and whether limitations and potential conflicts of interest are acknowledged.

While medical journals strive to ensure accuracy and the acknowledgment of limitations in articles, press releases may not reflect these efforts, say the authors. Medical journal press releases are perhaps the most direct way that journals communicate with the media. Although releases provide an opportunity to help journalists get stories "right," there has been little scrutiny of the release process or quality.

For this study, the authors conducted telephone interviews in January 2001 with press officers at nine prominent medical journals and analyzed 127 press releases about research articles, for the six issues of each journal preceding the interviews.

Seven of the nine study journals routinely issue press releases: Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal (BMJ), Circulation, JAMA, Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), Lancet and Pediatrics. The Annals of Surgery and New England Journal of Medicine do not routinely issue press releases.

The researchers found that of the journals that routinely issue releases, "in each case, the editor with the press office selects articles based on perceived newsworthiness and releases are written by press officers trained in communications. Journals have general guidelines (e.g., length) but no standards for acknowledging limitations or for data presentation. Editorial input varies from none to intense. Of the 127 releases analyzed, 29 (23 percent) noted study limitations and 83 (65 percent) reported main effects using numbers; 58 reported differences between study groups and of these, 26 (55 percent) provided the corresponding base rate, the format least prone to exaggeration. Industry funding was noted in only 22 percent of 23 studies receiving such funding."

The authors write: "A number of authors have criticized the accuracy and balance of the news media in reporting on medical science. As a direct means of communication between medical journals and the media, press releases provide an opportunity for journals to influence how the research is translated into news. Our findings suggest journals could make more of this opportunity."

"The most direct way to improve the quality of journal press releases lies in enhanced editorial oversight of the process," the authors add. "Editors might develop presentation standards for releases analogous to the structured abstract format used by many journals, and might include a section putting results in context (e.g., are the results consistent with other studies, is there a corresponding editorial), a limitations section, and a statement about potential conflicts of interest.

The authors conclude: "The public and many physicians often learn about new medical research through the news media, rather than medical journals. We think that journals can and should do more to enhance the quality of medical reporting."
Woloshin and Schwartz are supported by Veterans Affairs Career Development Awards in Health Services Research and Development. This study was also supported by a National Cancer Institute grant.

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