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Misleading Drug Coverage
Study Finds Failure to Disclose Important Information in Media
By Katharine Webster
The Associated Press
June 1 — 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
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
The study by researchers from Harvard University and Harvard
Pilgrim Health Care, a managed care insurer, was being
published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, whose
incoming editor has been criticized for an apparent conflict of
interest involving a drug company.
Reporting the Numbers
Wire service stories were included in the study, including some
by The Associated Press.
Forty percent of the stories studied did not report the
numbersbehind 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.
Disclosing Financial Ties
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
“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
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.
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