Sensationalism of Unfounded Studies Needs to be Addressed

Controversial clinical research may gain significant traffic, but may not always be based on facts.

A new study found that when inaccurate clinical research is presented by sensationalized media outlets, the resulting hysteria could potentially have harmful effects on patients, physicians, the scientific community, and even society as a whole.

A study that has been widely discredited, which linked vaccinations and autism, has caused widespread panic since it was publicized. Despite the incorrect findings, many parents are still opting to stop vaccinating their children. The media panic caused by this study sparked the “anti-vaxxer” movement, which has increased susceptibility to serious, preventable diseases in individuals who have not been vaccinated.

In a review article published by EMBO Reports, investigators discuss how weak, controversial studies are portrayed by the media with a narrative that is blatantly false or based on few scientific facts. The investigators said the blame for misleading the public should be shared by all involved, including journalists, scientists, editors, and research institutions.

Specifically, the investigators discuss the changes in medical practices and attitudes relating hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in peri- and post-menopausal patients after a study became highly publicized.

In 2002, journalists reported that the Women’s Health Initiative study was stopped after researchers found a greater risk of stroke, death, and breast cancer among women who received HRT with estrogen and progesterone compared with women who received a placebo, according to the review.

As a result of the media report, physicians called for cessation of HRT in certain patients, and prescriptions decreased more than 80%. This remained unchanged for years, with many healthcare professionals still referencing the study.

However, a 2013 follow-up study showed no significant differences in mortality among women who received HRT compared with those who received a placebo. There were no differences in other adverse events discovered either.

"We believe that the collaboration between media and scientific journals in communicating advances in science and medicine to the public may result in misinformation and distortion,” said lead author Abdulmaged M. Traish, PhD. “Unfortunately, this collaboration often exaggerates and allows bad science to be disseminated and shared. Media is often drawn to these controversial studies and they promote them with a narrative that is difficult to change even if it is wrong.”

The investigators believe that many different methods could be used to prevent healthcare professionals and the general public from believing distorted results, which may prevent certain patients from receiving the best care.

Strategies include recognizing the collaboration between medical journals, being skeptical of statements given by individuals who likely do not have extensive clinical experience with a certain drug or treatment, and understanding the limitations of 1 study since 70% of highly-cited studies are unreproducible, according to the current study.

The researchers believe that adopting a critical view of how the media and medical journals may sensationalize questionable studies holds importance for the general public.

“This is an issue that needs to be discussed, debated and taught to our medical students to be prepared to enter the real world of medicine and its complexities,” Dr Traish concluded.