Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cancer Reporting in the Media - Guess what they report on?

This is a photograph of the Chicago River dyed...Image via Wikipedia
St. Patrick's day is good for celebrating your Irish heritage or fondness for food coloring, but it may have a new tradition, the release of major Palliative Care articles. Three major articles came out this week. Today JAMA published "Availability and Integration of Palliative Care at US Cancer Centers", yesterday the Archives of Internal Medicine released "Cancer and the Media: How Does the News Report on Treatment and Outcomes?" and on the 15th CMAJ released "Why do patients with cancer visit the emergency department near the end of life?"

So why the St. Patrick's day logjam of articles? Some may say it is mere coincidence, but I think there may be some meta-meaning here. By the power of Grayskull Wikipedia I found that St. Patrick is very likely two different people, one of which is named Palladius...very similar to 'palliative'...which is why I am sure the editors of these three journals got together to plan this bounty of articles. (I guess the New England Journal of Medicine missed the conference call). We will see if next year the same thing happens. Enough conspiracy talk...

This Archives of Internal Medicine study by Fischman, Have and Casarett shines a light on the bias present in the media towards the 'fight' against cancer. (other good blog posts on words used in cancer: Drew Rosielle on 'Hope' and GeriPal on 'fighting cancer')  The researchers looked at 8 newspapers (Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Daily-Herald Chicago, New York Daily, New York Post, New York Times, Philadelphia Daily News , Philadelphia Inquirer) and 5 magazines (Newsweek, Parade, People, Redbook, Time). (What no Washington Post or Cosmo?)

The main points in the articles that were coded if they were mentioned were:
  • Survival
  • Mortality
  • Aggressive/curative
  • Treatment failures
  • Adverse events
  • Palliative focus

The researchers found a very significant bias towards reporting cures/survivors (32%) over deaths (8%) and sadly only 2% that mentioned both. Also they found that adverse events and treatment failures were rarely reported (both less than 30%).

And of course the result you have been waiting for, 11 articles out of 436 (3%) mentioned aggressive and pallaitive measures and only 2 (two, dos, deux, zwei!) of the articles focused exclusively on end of life care exclusively. Well the researches only searched from 2005-7 and so they missed the whole past year of New York Times articles we have been writing about. Still it is shocking in 'cancer focused' articles only 0.5% mention end-of-life care exclusively?!

Pallimed was initially focused on EBM style analysis of palliative care articles, but we have expanded our scope to report on palliative care in the media also, and this study justifies the importance of getting the story about good palliative care into the main media news cycles. It is not just enough that there are articles about cancer treatments (mainly read by cancer patients and their families) or articles about hospice or palliative care programs (read by hospice and palliative care staff and families with hospice experience.) We need articles that combine the two so people are equally exposed to the balance of treatments that exist out there. Few patients or families facing cancer diagnoses will choose to read the 'hospice is valuable' headline when juxtaposed with a 'new cancer treatment' headline.

But it is important to understand the view of the journalist and editors as well. 'New cancer treatment' headlines may sell more copies than 'hospice is valuable' headlines. Also a new treatment being available is news because it is new, different, interesting. Having articles about how people have poor survival with a cancer diagnosis is not new, different or interesting. Palliative care and hospice organizations need to make sure the journalists and editors hear the great stories we see every day in our work. The human interest perspective is very powerful. Some hospices are better at connecting with the media than others. Maybe it was time we all had a lesson in how to best interact professionally with the media.

For reference I have uploaded a slidedeck I gave at the NHPCO conference in 2007 titled: Working With the Media: How to Reach the Widest Audience Possible. It is embedded below.
If you know of any other good media resources for medical professionals please comment below.  Hospice Foundation of America also posted about this today.

ResearchBlogging.orgFishman, J., Ten Have, T., & Casarett, D. (2010). Cancer and the Media: How Does the News Report on Treatment and Outcomes? Archives of Internal Medicine, 170 (6), 515-518 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2010.11
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