Here at Heart Sisters World Headquarters, yet another academic news release has crossed my desk, bursting with life-changing hype. This one is about hospitalized patients, especially those who are too ill or too weak to put on their own attractive hospital gowns.
The news from the Georgia Institute of Technology says that a million of us need daily assistance in getting dressed because of “injury, disease and advanced age.” What we need when we are admitted to hospital, apparently, is a robot to help us get dressed! (What we actually need, Georgia Tech, is to replace those hideous hospital gowns with what’s known as adaptive clothing, along with adequate healthcare staffing levels).
The Georgia Institute of Technology, ranked as the “smartest” public college in the U.S.(1), is working on a robot that can successfully slide hospital gowns onto people’s arms. This machine, called a PR2, relies on “the forces it feels as it guides the garment onto a person’s hand, around the elbow and onto the shoulder.”
Here’s my official response via Twitter to the Georgia Tech “news”:
Like many news flashes originating from university researchers and their communications offices, this one is all sizzle and no steak. Currently, the Georgia Tech robot is only able to slide the sleeve of a hospital gown onto the arm of a patient, a handy feature if all you need is to have one of your arms covered.
This technology is so new that it’s barely hatched. It has sometimes worked for staff in the lab so far, but even researchers themselves admit the project was, at times, a “spectacular failure” (for example, whenever the simulated robot applied dangerous forces to the arm when the cloth would catch on the person’s hand or elbow).
Stay away from me and my arm until you get that little glitch figured out!
And as in most not-yet-ready-for-prime-time announcements that you’re in a hurry to send out to the media anyway because your research lab will be presenting your findings at a big tech conference in Australia, “more research is needed”, especially if patients prefer covering their naked bodies with more than a hospital gown sleeve.
News releases like these have been described by some as “puffery”.
They are sent out en masse to media in the hopes that gaining media coverage will help to enhance awareness, or credibility, or prestige, or reputation as an innovative source of addressing unmet needs, or overall donor support of their institution.
As a person who spent over 35 years in a public relations career spanning government, corporate and non-profit PR sectors, I can relate – for this was my job, too. (Full disclosure: I’m not a scientist, but I did spend 20 years of my life living with a research scientist. Does that count at all?!)
In medicine, publicizing early results by leap-frogging over the lab bench to aim directly at the general public who read news headlines can be problematic.
Dr. Ray Moynihan is a former journalist, co-author of “Selling Sickness” and a senior research fellow at Bond University in Australia. As he told journalist Trudy Lieberman in an interview for Health News Review:
“My work on promotion and marketing in medicine suggests benefits are hyped and harms tend to be hidden way too often. This bias can flow from the news release straight into the media coverage, distorting public debate and painting an overly rosy picture of what health care can deliver.”
And Lieberman further added:
“The fluff of news releases simply serves to mask the real information that groups like Health News Review, The Association of Health Care Journalists, and many news organizations like Pro Publica and others believe consumers and patients need to know.”
The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review raised additional concerns about this collaboration between academic researchers and their institution’s publicity departments. For example:
“A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.”
This observation was backed up in a study published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, in which researchers concluded(2):
“Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.”
In fact, researchers found that 40 per cent of the academic releases sent out to the media were about early research with uncontrolled interventions, small samples (under 30 participants), or data that had never been accepted for publication in any scientific journal.
This paper elicited a hasty defense from academic communications types who send out news releases for a living, one of whom (Earle Holland at Ohio State University) does not apologize for hyping his institution’s research, and in fact blames lazy journalists and their editors for running unexamined news releases. He defended the common practice of sending out updates on early research to the media:
“Stating what kind of treatments the research could lead to is perfectly legitimate.”
So back at Georgia Tech, it might be possible to imagine that the hospital gown robot could one day morph into a daily hospital routine, even though it now simply strikes me as downright dehumanizing, and yet another example of how brainiac tech-types are seduced by developing something new just because they can. See also this guest post by Marie Ennis O’Connor: Designing With the Patient in Mind
As the founders of Inga Wellbeing* (a company that actually helps real live patients by creating “adaptive clothing” that is attractive to patients, yet practical for healthcare professionals to easily access dressings, tubes or drains) recently told me:
“Having a robot dress patients does not seem to be the answer. Better surely that clothing adapts to their needs than a robot drapes a gown over them?”
Well, not exactly “over them”.
Just an arm. . .
1. Wai, Jonathan; Goudreau, Jenna (September 30, 2015). “The 105 Smartest Public Colleges In America”. Business Insider Inc.
2. Woloshin S, Schwartz LM, Casella SL, Kennedy AT, Larson RJ. “Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?” Ann Intern Med. 2009;150:613–618.
Q: Have you encountered media coverage of “life-changing” health news that turned out to be less than hyped?
Media watchdog Health News Review started a pilot project to help public relations staff send out accurate and appropriate health-related news releases. Read more about this here: Improve PR news releases about health care/research
Science reporting by press release – by Christine Russell in the Columbia Journalism Review