Mayo Prostate Cancer Scan and Incomplete Reporting From the Minnesota Public Radio

December 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Prostate Cancer News

The reporting of health news by the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) has recently being criticized by a listener.

The points raised were very critical and could make sense in some ways. The criticism relates to the radio’s program titled “Prostate cancer scan advance helps Mayo doctors with early detection”.

You can read the highlighted part of this article now to get a grasp of what message is passed from that story:

I’m a big fan of Minnesota Public Radio and usually a big fan of their health care news coverage. They’ve done some bold and innovative coverage in recent years. But when I heard (on the radio) and saw (online) MPR’s story, “Prostate cancer scan advance helps Mayo doctors with early detection,” I saw some red flags immediately. Here’s the radio version:

What initially jumped out at me were some of the often-seen claims of exclusivity, which, in this case are legitimate (although with some asterisks):

  • “(Mayo) is the only health care provider in the United States that is offering the scan to patients.”  That’s apparently true.  But haven’t we advanced to the stage where we should lead with evidence, not with claims of “first in the US” or “first in Minnesota”?  Haven’t we learned yet that in health care, more/newer isn’t always better?  Should evidence/data lead the trumpet blasts? For example, oncologist Ezekiel Emanuel wrote about Mayo Clinic’s plans for two proton beam treatment facilities, describing it as “crazy medicine and unsustainable public policy.”
  • Next sentence: “The scan allows men with cancer to receive treatment that is both faster and potentially more effective than current tests. As a result, patients from around North America have flooded the clinic with requests to use the scan because it’s much more sensitive than other available techniques. “  There’s some loaded language in that short excerpt.  “Potentially more effective”?  What do the data show now about the reality and the potential?  “It’s much more sensitive than other available techniques.”  How much more sensitive?  What do the data show about how much difference this makes in people’s lives – more than the one tearful Christian pastor who is profiled in the story?
  • One of the Mayo physicians says that their new scan results are remarkably detailed. “I’ve seen a single hot spot in the middle of the breastbone,” he said. “I’ve seen a single hot spot behind the eyeball. So instead of guessing you absolutely know what you’re dealing with.” – But what do the data show about what the results are, what the outcomes are, from finding and treating single hot spots with “remarkable detail”?  These are not just academic questions.  Imaging scans are renowned for not telling the whole story, and for not telling the stories that matter most in many peoples’ lives.  Data, please?
  • The story quoted a Mayo physician:  “As prostate cancer cells multiply, they absorb a lot of choline. Lowe said that makes the compound a good biomarker for detecting tumors. “If a cancer is growing and producing more cells, then the hypothesis is that it’s going to need more choline than other tissues around it,” he said. Are biomarkers foolproof?  Read a collection of stories and studies we’ve tracked about various claims for various biomarkers and judge for yourself. Note how he is careful to say “the hypothesis is…”  Did the story emphasize that this work is in the hypothesis stage?  We didn’t think so.

We don’t systematically review MPR health news stories.  That is, we don’t check them regularly and apply our 10 criteria to the review of their stories.  But if we had in this case, this story would have been graded unsatisfactory for failing to discuss costs, failing to report any independent perspective, failing to provide any meaningful data about benefits/harms/outcomes, failing to adequately compare with any existing alternatives or anything else in the research pipeline.  It would have taken little time to address these concerns.  MPR has lots of time, unfettered by the commercial interruptions of commercial broadcasting operations, right? Choices are made about how to use that time. Click here to read the More.

From the extract highlighted above, it becomes quite important that proper reporting of health news is very important. This will not only inform listeners, it would also help them to make accurate health related decisions.

When it comes to prostate cancer, the diagnosis and treatment decisions need to be accurate to extend the life of the patient.

Whatever is the source of the information, be it radio, television, print, or online, it could make sense if accuracy is put at the forefront of dissemination.

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