Medical Journalism by Press Release

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As I spend more time writing about health and science articles I have been introduced to some aspects of science journalism. One of the sources for science “journalists” (the quotation marks have meaning as you will see) is the press release. Why bother with reading the original article when the story elements are laid out in front of you? A few rearrangements, judicious editing and there is a story fit for the 6 PM news – where these pieces frequently are found. 

I wanted to share one of those press releases with you. Here is the headline and the subhead from Physicians Weekly [1], “Surgeries performed later in the day have more complications - A new study published in Neurosurgery finds that patients who undergo a neurosurgical procedure with surgical start times between 9 pm and 7 am are at an increased risk.” It is identical to both the headline and subhead found in ScienceDaily – whose article is, in turn, based on a press release by the Oxford University Press publisher of Neurosurgery. What we have is, serial copy and paste.  The summary was faithful to the paper; it just left out the nuance; the part that provides the context so you can understand the work.

Let me provide examples from the article from ScienceDirect

  • “The study showed that the odds of a complication were increased by more than 50% for procedures with start times between 9 pm and 7 am.”
  • “The only statistically significant factor that predicted severity of the complication was if the operation was an emergency compared to an elective surgery.”

Really? So the only factor that was statistically significant was whether the operation was an emergency, the time of the operation was not. Again, to be fair that first and second statement are the authors'. There already is a wealth of clinical literature showing emergency surgery is a crucial factor in the risk of postoperative morbidity.

The study reports the odds of a complication based on start time was 1.53. That is the headline. For emergency surgery, the odds of a complication were 1.44. But if you dig just a little bit deeper, and by that, I mean looking at a table in the study, you will find that 70.5% of those night cases were emergencies as compared with 8.4% emergencies during the rest of the day.  So what can we really conclude? That it is bad to have emergency neurosurgery, especially late at night? I already knew that, and often wondered why patients wait until it is night to have their emergencies? It is a little like those people whose cars catch on fire while driving to work, couldn’t they just let them catch fire in their driveway and not be a bother for the rest of us?

Take a moment to return to the headline and subhead of Physicians Weekly and ScienceDaily. There is no mention of their findings in relation to emergency status. That is misleading, to the casual reader and that is most of us including physicians. It is not journalism or even fair reporting; it is cut and paste plagiarism of thought. It fills our screens but not our minds.

[1] They provide news and information for physicians as posters, changed weekly and found in many hospitals.