Media coverage of new drugs is often misleading

Financial ties of cited experts go undisclosed

Newspaper and television reports on new medications tend to exaggerate their benefits, ignore their risks, and fail to disclose their costs, according to a collaborative study in the June 1 New England Journal of Medicine.

The study also found that only 40 percent of news stories citing experts with financial ties to the drug being studied disclosed this potential conflict of interest.

"Major scientific journals require study authors to disclose industry links, as evidence suggests that commercial funding of research may lead to more favorable research outcomes," says Ray Moynihan, the study's lead author, and an award-winning medical journalist with the Sydney-based Australian Financial Review. "This standard might be adopted by the news media so the public can make more informed decisions on their health care."

The study also found that of the 207 stories randomly selected, 40 percent did not offer any numerical analysis of a drug's benefits, leaving the public without any benchmark to judge the overall value of the drug to their health. Of the 124 stories that did, 83 percent reported only relative benefits, a practice that can be viewed as potentially misleading. For example, 1996 reports on a new osteoporosis drug said it would reduce hip fractures by 50 percent, a relative figure that exaggerates the power of the drug when placed next to its absolute benefit. In absolute terms, only two percent of untreated osteoporosis sufferers sustain hip fractures, meaning the new drug would reduce hip fractures from two to one percent of this affected population.

Of the stories using figures, only 15 percent mentioned both relative and absolute benefits.

Further, 53 percent of the stories failed to discuss potential harms of the three medications included in the study: aspirin, pravastatin, and alendronate. Each drug, while having many benefits, is associated with a range of pote

Contact: John Lacey
Harvard Medical School

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