What the news about health often leaves out
18 Oct 2011
by Amanda Wilson
We've noticed lots of missing information in stories recently evaluated by Media Doctor Australia, including mention of whether the intervention or treatment being described is even available.
Over the years we've had lots of comments from health professionals, particularly GPs, about the number of people coming through their doors hoping to try a new therapy they've heard about in the media. The majority of these are disappointed to learn what they're looking for isn't available, either because it's not commercially available (early phase research) or because it's not approved for sale in Australia.
The Media Doctor rating instrument defines 'availability' as accurate information about the accessibility of an intervention. If it's a drug, registration and PBS status should be included (although we usually let this go through to the keeper, it does score extra points when provided). Where relevant, we like to see any reimbursements available - for example, is this test covered under Medicare? But the most important aspect is whether it is widely available in Australia - and this is often left for the audience to find out for themselves.
One story from last month, "Young patients abuzz at the end of pain", was about a device involving an ice pack with vibrating wings that claimed to make injections 'pain free' for kids. While the story read like the device was still undergoing testing, it is in fact commercially available. However, that didn't stop the article sounding like a pretty solid promotion.
Another story, "Asthma pregnancy treatment hope", reported on a highly novel approach to managing asthma during pregnancy. The problem is that at this stage, the intervention is only available from the Newcastle hospital where it has been developed, but the story didn't reveal this. '
A Cochrane review on music therapy for people with cancer, Music 'may help cancer patients', was well covered, but didn't provide any Australian comment or define what is needed for music to be therapy, or the what qualifications are needed to be an authorised therapist. So while music therapy is available in Australia (although the story didn't state this), it's hard to tell if it's the same kind as that used in the research.
One of the reasons for not mentioning availability is because the stories are bought from overseas news agencies and printed verbatim. It would do the media outlets big favours with their audiences if they took a little time to place the stories in a local context. Talking to an Australian expert in the field would not only provide a local comment on the research or intervention but also shine a light on whether Australians have access to it. This would increase production time a little, but it's a good method of getting the edge on rival publications, which have access to the same stories.
Why don't journalists routinely include availability? Maybe they don't want to be seen to be pushing a product and think if someone is interested they will track it down. We think they should ask if an intervention is available in Australia and whether it's on the PBS or covered by Medicare. If it's not widely available, they should ask why and when it will become available.