THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA--print and broadcast--is a major source of health information. How do, and should, physicians and researchers communicate their work to the public, and what can, and can't, readers expect from the popular press' coverage of medicine and biomedical science?
Dartmouth Medical School researcher Joyce DeLeo was eager to talk to the media about her work on neuropathic pain--a kind of intense, long-lasting agony caused by damaged nerves. Flattered that the American Association for the Advancement of Science had invited her to participate in a press conference at the group's 1998 annual meeting, DeLeo, an associate professor of anesthesiology, never expected that the media coverage would get so out of hand that she would be deluged with letters from desperate people begging her for help.
The headlines that appeared in hundreds of newspapers worldwide screamed: "Chronic Pain Relief on Way, Scientists Say: Agony That Is Unrelieved Even by Morphine Can Now Be Treated with Cytokine Blockers" (Toronto Globe and Mail); "New Drugs May Bring Relief from Neuropathic Pain" (Cleveland Plain Dealer); and "Optimism Over Neuropathic Pain Treatment" (London Financial Times).
At the press conference, DeLeo had described a new understanding of how the nervous and immune systems interact and had suggested that cytokines, which are produced by the immune system to help the body heal injuries, might also cause neuropathic pain. Reporters swarmed around her afterwards, demanding to know when her findings would lead to new pain-relieving drugs. "I said very emphatically at the time that what we're doing is basic science research, that I had no idea how long it would be to have this work translated into the clinic," DeLeo notes.
Yet, within a couple of weeks, she recalls, "I started getting bombarded by letters, e-mails, phone calls." She pulls out a thick folder stuffed with letters from desperate patients. "I guess what bothered me most about my experience was that the letters that I got from patients--oh, they're just agonizing." She selects one letter from the folder and reads: "I heard from the article in the San Antonio Express News that you found a cure. How can I get these drugs?" Another couple drove all the way from Alabama to see her, and DeLeo had to explain to them that she was a researcher and didn't see patients. "The media really did an injustice," she argues, "not only to our work, but to give such hope for these people who are in chronic pain."
DeLeo was so upset by the experience that she began refusing to talk to the media about her research. Yet, she knows that few people would have paid attention to her work if the news report had merely said, "Researchers have found cytokines increased in the spinal cord response to nerve injury." She sighs, "Who'd care?"
Plenty of people do care about medical science, and they count on the media being able to put complicated research results into plain English. While the media can be overzealous--sometimes even raising false hopes, as in the case of DeLeo's research--more often than not they do a good job of translating medical information, presenting a balanced view, and providing people with news they can use.
However, it can be difficult for the media to liven up rather dull and technical-sounding medical science without exaggerating or sensationalizing the information. "I think the primary challenge is conveying the absolute truth of a new medical finding in as accurate a way as possible, without hype and without suggesting that we know all the answers," says Susan Dentzer, the health care correspondent for PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
Medical developments are usually reported first in journals and may be hard even for physicians in other fields to understand. "What would really help is if the articles in the medical journals were better written in the first place--in plain English," suggests Dentzer. …