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Can we always believe what the papers say?

23 September 2008

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Patients expect their health professionals to know everything about health. And it is common for a patient to ask their GP or nurse a question based on a news story they read.

But how do the press decide which health stories are “newsworthy” and merit reporting, and which don’t. And how do these stories impact on your practice?

At today’s Nursing in Practice Event in London, GP Dr Sarah Jarvis explained to delegates how the press decides whether a story is “news”.

Childhood obesity, diabetes, cancer and so on are all relevant to primary care professionals on a day-to-day basis, and have a huge effect on your patients’ morbidity and mortality, but as news topics they have been around for a while, and the press are really more interested in “new” stories. As Dr Jarvis put it: “The press are only interested in two types of drugs – miracle drugs and killer drugs.”

Using caffeine as an example, Dr Jarvis looked at several news stories that have appeared in the last year in the UK national press, and what the truth behind these headlines actually is.

One story that hit the headlines this year was that diabetics should be urged to cut out coffee. This was based on a genuine study that did find some adverse effect on glucose metabolism in patient with diabetes. 

A different study found an association with coffee and a reduced risk of diabetes in postmenopausal women, and this involved 28,812 participants. Yet another found that coffee was associated with a reduced risk of diabetes in middle-aged men and no increased risk in women, and this involved 12,204 participants. However, neither of these studies were reported in the papers.

But the one that had caught the national press’s attention, had only involved just 10 participants. Hardly a statistically significant sample.

Dr Jarvis also described a report that had ran in several papers, claiming that four cups of coffee a day would decrease a woman’s fertility by 26% (in fact one paper said it decreased fertility by 75%).

A closer look at the actual study revealed that that this was a retrospective study of women, who had all undergone IVF treatment for fertility, and had been unsuccessful. The study took place after the women had stopped IVF.

It not only asked about coffee (which showed a 26% decrease in fertility), it also found that one cigarette a day was associated with a 44% decrease in fertility; three units of alcohol a week was associated with an approx. 25% decrease in fertility; and obesity also had an adverse effect on fertility. And of course, these women already had fertiltiy problems.

So why did the press latch onto the fact about coffee?

All newspapers have an impact on their readers, your patients. But not every health news story provides the complete picture. Worth bearing in mind the next time a patient asks one of your staff about the latest health scare they have read about in the newspaper.