Medical journalism watchdog slams cardiac ‘polypill’ news hype

13 Aug

woman reading hanging around

What news headlines around the world said:

“Single Pill Combining Five Heart Drugs Appears Safe.”

What the journalists said:

“Imagine if people at risk of heart disease could take a single pill that would contain all the medications they need to reduce their heart risk.  Such a pill is already a reality and now new research suggests it’s safe and effective.  It’s called a polypill and could soon become a cheap, simple way to prevent both heart disease and stroke.” CTV News

What journalism watchdogs Media Doctor Canada said:

 “This story delivers a hyped conclusion on the basis of very poor evidence, yet it calls this a ‘lifesaving’ drug. The published paper and study results reveal that this was a double-blind study that followed patients for only 12 weeks.  How can this drug be called ‘safe and effective’ if it’s taken over many years?

“The concept of mixing different compounds into one pill is very poor medicine. It doesn’t permit physicians to customize the dose for specific patients depending on the patient’s specific risk factors.”  

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, not only patients but even doctors often base their health care opinions on what they have read or heard in the media.  That’s why manufacturers of new medical therapies hire public relations folks like me to send out press releases that over-emphasize the benefits and minimize the potential harms of their new products. These press releases form the basis for media stories like the CTV National News piece quoted here. Manufacturers of these therapies then use the media to create pressure from the community to have them approved. University of Minnesota journalism professor and activist Gary Schwitzer compares this kind of health care marketing blitz with “flooding the public with a fire hose.”

Luckily for us, there are unique watchdog organizations like Media Doctor Canada, a group of clinicians and academics from the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and York University.  MDC reviews current news items about medical treatments, assesses their quality using a standardized 5-star rating scale, and then presents online reviews of good and bad examples of medical journalism.  Evidence, harms of treatment, ‘disease mongering’ and sources of information are some of the 11 potential rating criteria used, in an attempt to foster responsible medical journalism.

That big polypill story?  It got a woeful one star out of a possible five-star rating.  Read the original CTV news story, and then read Media Doctor Canada‘s critical review.

And next time you hear or read or watch a sensational, too-good-to-be-true health-related story in the media, don’t get too excited. Become a savvy consumer. Bookmark one or more of these medical journalism watchdog groups that help us evaluate evidence for and against new ideas in health care:

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