In December 2016, the University of Maryland published a press release that reported the outstanding results of a “study” that connected chocolate milk consumption in athletes with improved brain function and better recovery after concussion. Suspicious reporters started sniffing around and found that there was no actual study, just a slide presentation. The research was funded by industry, didn’t show the results the press release suggested, had not been submitted for peer review, and accepted standards, such as the p-value used for significance, were ignored.
This was a particularly egregious case, because the typical protocol was ignored at several points along the way. This is why it attracted media attention and the proclaimed results were debunked in the press. But not all problems with headline “science” draw such scrutiny because they aren’t quite so obvious.
Your patients are constantly bombarded with headlines that promote half-truths about medical research. They may make a claim about a study that is technically true, but the study was so small that it is inappropriate to draw conclusions.
Or the headline may fail to point out industry sponsorship of the research, or to clarify the difference between correlation and causation.
Indeed, the criteria for headline inclusion has little to do with evidence, and everything to do with selling papers or, more accurately, getting clicks.
So how do you, as a neurologist, combat this problem?
Be aware of the problem
First, you have to be aware of the problem. Do you know what headlines are finding their way to your patients? Checking the health news each morning is a good first step. If there is something particularly outlandish, you can address it head on with your patients right away.
Health News Reviews is an independent website that analyzes the actual science and data behind the health headlines. This is a great resource to find the headlines that are grabbing attention and what the news outlets are getting wrong about the research.
Communicate to your patients
Second, you have to communicate this information to your patients. Mentioning these headline problems to appropriate patients when they visit your office is a good start. But let’s face it—it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the reach of the headline itself.
This is a good function for your practice blog. You will provide a great service by publishing the real story behind these headlines for your patients to read.
If you maintain an email list, this is a perfect use for it. Email allows you to get your thoughts out in a timely manner and doesn’t rely on patients visiting your office or even your website.
Share your knowledge in the community
Finally, this is a great opportunity to get out in the community and provide your knowledge and expertise on the subject. You could contact the local news outlets and let them know there are problems with some of the recent headlines. Make yourself available for interviews if they choose to report on the issue.
You can also offer to present to pertinent community groups. For example, when the chocolate milk press release came out, you could have presented to your local football booster club about the “study.” This puts you in position to refute the bad science while providing real evidence-based information for your community.
Poorly written headlines are bad news, but you can still use them as an opportunity to establish yourself as the likable expert in your specialty, promote health literacy, and establish the importance of using quality evidence in healthcare. Everybody wins.