Fake Health News

The Fake Health News Series

This blog will occasionally feature examples of Fake News in the health information space. Just as in politics, health information misreporting by any means can affect the way in which patients engage the health care system.  Again like politics, it is not the opinion that is the problem, it is when an opinion is presented as information without bias. In politics, it’s a card-carrying partisan disguised as an objective newsperson reporting one side of a story (or not reporting it) to advance a position.

In health news, a simple example is this from the New York Times:

It Was Supposed to Be an Unbiased Study of Drinking. They Wanted to Call It ‘Cheers.’
Buried in a new N.I.H. report are disturbing examples of coordination between scientists and the alcohol industry on a study that could have changed America’s drinking habits.

A few quotes below from the article demonstrating the issues that are far too common:

The director of the nation’s top health research agency pulled the plug on a study of alcohol’s health effects without hesitation on Friday, saying a Harvard scientist and some of his agency’s own staff had crossed “so many lines” in pursuit of alcohol industry funding that “people were frankly shocked.”

In June 2013, institute staff drew up a business plan making the case for the industry’s financial support of the study. “Once the data are released into the public domain via publication,” it said, “the industry can use that information to make or bolster whatever arguments and claims they choose.”

“As we discussed, this will be the first R.C.T., i.e. ‘gold standard’ evidence of this,” they added, “and it is important to answer statements made by W.H.O. and others that ‘no level of alcohol is safe’ with certainty.” (R.C.T. refers to a randomized controlled trial.)

Indeed, on Feb. 26, 2015, Dr. Mukamal and alcohol institute staff weighed in on an email to an industry group, editing it to say that one of the important findings of the study “will be showing that moderate drinking is safe.”

Perhaps the earliest signs of bias could be seen in emails between N.I.A.A.A. staff as they debated what they should call the trial. Scientists often come up with acronyms that serve as nicknames for studies and are shorthand for long, complicated scientific titles.

One staffer informed another on June 13, 2013, that the name of this clinical trial would be “Cheers” — short for “Cardiovascular Health Effects of Ethanol Research Study.”

“And it will be a new drinking game,” the official added. “Every time you hear it, you must assume its [sic] a toast, and so have a drink.”

That idea was later abandoned in favor of the more sober acronym, M.A.C.H., which stood for “Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health.”

You have all the elements of Fake Health News here.  A study paid for by one side with a monetary upside, with a pre-determined outcome, showing moderate drinking is safe, and ensuring the title is social media friendly.

The more information the better, but the biases need to be declared in the open. I will lead with mine when posting as well. A good study paid for by the booze industry that shows moderate drinking is fine, there have been many, would be great for discourse if there is appropriate transparency and it is not simply a dressed up advertising campaign.

We will watch for more of this under the Fake Health News Tag.


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