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Paper Chase

Coverage by the news media of the benefits and risks of medications.

N. Engl. J. Med.. Jun 1, 2000;342(22):1645-50.
Moynihan R, Bero L, Ross-Degnan D, Henry D, Lee K, Watkins J, Mah C, Soumerai SB.

Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Boston, MA 02215, USA.

Abstract:

BACKGROUND

The news media are an important source of information about new medical treatments, but there is concern that some coverage may be inaccurate and overly enthusiastic.

METHODS

We studied coverage by U.S. news media of the benefits and risks of three medications that are used to prevent major diseases. The medications were pravastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug for the prevention of cardiovascular disease; alendronate, a bisphosphonate for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis; and aspirin, which is used for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. We analyzed a systematic probability sample of 180 newspaper articles (60 for each drug) and 27 television reports that appeared between 1994 and 1998.

RESULTS

Of the 207 stories, 83 (40 percent) did not report benefits quantitatively. Of the 124 that did, 103 (83 percent) reported relative benefits only, 3 (2 percent) absolute benefits only, and 18 (15 percent) both absolute and relative benefits. Of the 207 stories, 98 (47 percent) mentioned potential harm to patients, and only 63 (30 percent) mentioned costs. Of the 170 stories citing an expert or a scientific study, 85 (50 percent) cited at least one expert or study with a financial tie to a manufacturer of the drug that had been disclosed in the scientific literature. These ties were disclosed in only 33 (39 percent) of the 85 stories.

CONCLUSIONS

News-media stories about medications may include inadequate or incomplete information about the benefits, risks, and costs of the drugs as well as the financial ties between study groups or experts and pharmaceutical manufacturers.