Don’t Believe The Hype – for NHS England

Here’s my second NHS England guest blog, as published on the NHS England website this week. How much of what you read in the paper or see on the news can you actually trust?

Don’t Believe the Hype: the health stories we can’t always trust

Every day, healthcare stories circulate in the mainstream British media – the latest breakthrough discovery, the most astounding piece of research, the vitally important health warning.

But how much of what is reported can be relied upon as scientific fact? How much of it has instead been misrepresented by over-enthusiastic researchers or blown out of proportion by sensationalist journalism?

How do we, as professionals, patients or the public, know what information we can rely on?

The rather brilliant ‘Behind the Headlines’ section on the NHS Choices website explains very well how medical and health reporting in the mainstream media can be subject to ‘spin’. This can result in the publication of misleading and potentially dangerous ‘cherry-picked’ information from research studies, giving an incomplete picture of the facts.

I think parents are particularly vulnerable to inaccurate health reporting. Throughout pregnancy and beyond, parents naturally want to do the very best for their offspring – and they often take advice presented in the media at face value, without fully considering the implications.

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The most notorious example of this, and demonstrating the dangerous power of unreliable reporting, is the MMR vaccination health scare.

As I’m sure most of you reading this will be aware, back in 1998 one (now discredited) doctor gave an opinion that there may be a link between the combined MMR vaccine and the development of autism in children, despite there being no reliable scientific evidence to back up the claim.

Thanks to some irresponsible and increasingly biased reporting from some sections of the media over the following years, many parents were sufficiently frightened by the possible link to avoid letting their children have the MMR vaccine – a decision they believed to be in their children’s best interests.

A decade after the height of the media hype, a widespread measles outbreak swept across Swansea and other parts of South Wales throughout the first half of 2013. There were over 1200 notified cases of the disease during the epidemic, 88 people were hospitalised for measles, and one 25 year old man died as a result of the infection.

Would this outbreak, and the many other measles cases that continue to surface, have happened if vaccination rates hadn’t dropped? A significant minority of people remain sceptical about the safety of the vaccination to this day as a result of the fear generated by the media reports.

Advice from various ‘experts’ about the way we should be caring for our children can often be conflicting, leaving parents none the wiser as to the best course of action.

Take last week’s story about the swaddling of infants, reported here on the BBC News website.

The story here is that an orthopaedic surgeon has recommended that babies should not be tightly swaddled to help them settle to sleep, as binding the legs together may lead to hip dysplasia. A reasonable assumption, but not one made as a result of his own current research – it is merely his opinion based on previous studies.

Nevertheless, the BBC News story also provides quotes from the Royal College of Midwives, another orthopaedic surgeon, and the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), all advising against tight swaddling so maybe there is some merit to the claims.

The issue I have with the BBC News website’s reporting of this story is that they include a link to an article from 2002 under ‘Related Stories’ entitled ‘Swaddling “reduces cot death risk”’.

Half way down this article it states that the swaddling method used for the study in question was ‘designed not to restrict the baby’s hip movement’, but given a quick glance, you would expect parents to be conflicted by the apparent advice given in the two stories. To swaddle or not to swaddle?

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What are parents supposed to think when they are presented with such emotive headlines as ‘Babies given Calpol just once a month “are five times as likely to develop asthma”’, ‘Pregnant women who use nasal sprays for colds and hayfever increase the risk of rare birth defects’ and ‘A glass of wine a day while pregnant “will not harm your baby”’?

Read about these stories on ‘Behind the Headlines’ and you’ll see that none of the studies concerned were able to prove a causal relationship, leaving the attention-grabbing headlines misleading at best..

As health professionals we are usually able to take healthcare stories in the mainstream media with a pinch of salt, but the wider public can be easily misled. If the NHS is to help people make properly informed decisions about their health, it has a responsibility to set the record straight when necessary.

People should be able to trust us. They should also be able to trust their newspaper.

bad scienceRenowned popular academic and doctor Ben Goldacre wrote an excellent piece about the MMR/autism saga in his book Bad Science – you can read an extract here.

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