Are Headlines of Medical Breakthroughs Overstating Actual Science and Research?

By Joshua Mansour, M.D.

Patients should have as much access to information as possible.  The more they know, the more informed decision about their health and life that can be made.  However, faulty headlines about new therapies are infiltrating news outlets left and right recently.  Many times, this information can be misleading, and it is difficult for patients, their friends, and family members to decipher.      

Lately, there has been a surge in the release of novel cancer diagnostics and therapy leading to an outburst of news coverage.  Understandably, people want to find better ways to detect and treat cancer.  However, it is of utmost importance to go back to the data and review exactly what it is that is being written.

In just recent weeks very bold statements have been made and are floating around news outlets such as people claiming to have the “cure for cancer within a year” or research finding a new “detection for Alzheimer’s.”   One of these is more likely, while the other makes for a catchy headline.  If proven wrong, there is not a single person that wouldn’t hope that it is more than a catchy headline.  This leads to the question, are many of these early press releases targeting the general population with bold claims without having enough evidence to be supported by the scientific community?

Integrative medicine physician Dr. Eddie Fatakhov explains that “patients sometimes come into the office asking for a treatment that is not approved and has not been properly studied.  Although we would like to do whatever we can to help the first part of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians is to ‘do no harm’.  Not to mention some of the headlines have no evidence supporting them or are released prior to having enough data, which can complicate things.”

The first amendment guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting restriction of the press and individual’s speech.  This is from the United States Constitution and is our right.  It is a blessing to live in a country that provides and respects this right.  However, is this same right that is provided to Americans also a cause of misleading information and facts?  Absolutely.

Information cannot and should not be censored, but it should be looked at closely before jumping to conclusions or assuming it to be true.  In medicine, patients’ lives are at stake. So while headlines may be catchy, a patient turning down therapy because they are waiting on something that they read about on the internet, that is not close to approval, or want to use a special herb because that has never been medically tested can be dangerous.

Many individuals that are writing these articles and interpreting the data to be released to the general public do not hold a medical degree or have not been trained to interpret the scientific data.  Patients will then come into doctors’ offices not asking questions or having an open dialogue about how they should be treated, but instead proclaiming that this is what they want because it is the “next best thing” that is just released.  It is the responsibility of a physician to be knowledgeable and up to date on different treatments and diagnostic tests.  However, it makes it difficult when physicians may not be up to date on this material that has no evidence and support.  False proclamations of grandeur, if you will. 

Well what are the benefits? Headlines may attract readers, and when properly reviewed may lead to further research and discussion.  It can lead to open dialogue with the patient’s healthcare providers that may not have been initially explored.  It can give hope.  But this same hope the community yearns for may sometimes be premature and/or misleading. 

So, at the end what can be done?  These headlines and false information need to be combated with science and evidence.  Individuals need to be vocal in supporting verified information and fighting against these deceptive claims.  We need to continue to work towards improving these tests, treatments, and our care.  When a breakthrough does occur, it will be meaningful and something to not only talk about but implement to help patients.

About Joshua Mansour, MD:

Dr. Joshua Mansour is a board-certified hematologist/oncologist working and in the field of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and cellular immunotherapy in Stanford, California.  Recently he has managed to have over 10 recent abstracts and over 10 recent manuscripts published in esteemed journals and given countless presentations at conferences and other institutions.  He has helped design and implement clinical studies to evaluate current treatment plans, collaborated on grant proposals, and lead multi-institutional retrospective studies that have been published.


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