Cautious! Well being information headlines will be deceiving
Have you ever read a headline that caught your eye but found the story itself disappointing? Or worse, did you find the dramatic headline completely misleading? Yes, me too.
A well-made headline can make a big impact. We often skim the headlines and then decide whether to continue reading or not.
Previously, I wrote about how media coverage of drug research can be misleading or confusing. Here I zoom in on health headlines that can be just as deceptive. Watch out for these pitfalls.
Overrated study results
- Have people been studied? When a study finds a drug is safe and effective for a major disease, that’s big news. But what if all of the study participants were mice? Omitting this important detail from the heading exaggerates the importance of the study.
- Too much drama. Dramatic terms such as “breakthrough” or “breakthrough” are common in the headlines of medical research. However, real breakthroughs are quite rare. This is in the nature of science: knowledge accumulates slowly, with each result building a little on the previous one.
- Goes too far. Headlines often take a leap of faith when summarizing the results of a study. For example, if researchers identify a new type of cell in the blood that increases in size as a disease worsens, they can speculate that treatments to reduce these cells might control the disease. “Researchers discover new treatment approaches!” hits the headline. Sure, that could happen one day (see below), but it’s an exaggeration if the study didn’t even evaluate the treatment.
- Overlooked the most important result. For example, instead of looking at how treatment affects heart disease, studies can assess how it affects a risk factor for it. A good example is cholesterol. It’s great for a drug to lower cholesterol, but much better for lowering the rate of cardiovascular disease and death. Headlines rarely capture the important difference between a “proxy” measure (like a risk factor) and the key outcome (like death rates).
- A cause of illness is not just a cause of illness. The distinction between “causation” and “association” is important. Observational studies can determine whether there is an association between two health problems, e.g. B. A relationship between a symptom (such as a headache) and an illness (such as a stomach ulcer). But that doesn’t mean that one caused the other. Imagine an observational study comparing thousands of headache sufferers with thousands of people who rarely had headaches. If more people in the frequent headache group had more stomach ulcers, the headline could boldly say “Headaches cause ulcers!” A more likely explanation is that people with severe headaches take aspirin, ibuprofen, and related drugs, which are known causes of ulcers.
Blurry about the most important details
- Sometime is not today. Studies of new drugs or devices can be seen as life-changing for humans or practice-changing for doctors. However, a closer look often reveals that the new treatment is still years away from market launch – or it may not get approved at all.
- In progress. “For the time being” is the missing word in many headlines. Studies presented at medical conferences but not yet published in a peer-reviewed medical journal provide initial insights. This research, while promising at the time, may ultimately be a scientific dead end.
- Is it a study, a press release or an advertisement? It’s hard to tell with some headlines. Press releases or advertisements usually present a positive twist on new knowledge or treatments. We expect the news coverage to be more balanced.
One story, many headlines
Here’s a great example of inflated headlines. A study from 2021 presented findings on a pacemaker that treats abnormal heart rhythms for a period of time and then resolves it. Amazing, isn’t it? For people who only need a pacemaker temporarily, a dissolving pacemaker could allow them to avoid surgery to remove it once it is no longer needed.
Three headlines on this research turned the story this way:
Coming soon: an implanted pacemaker that dissolves after use
Could people one day get pacemakers that would dissolve in the body?
The first transient pacemaker dissolves harmlessly in the body
But this dissolving pacemaker has never been tried on living humans – an important fact! To test the dissolving pacemaker, the researchers had performed open heart surgery on rats and dogs, as well as laboratory experiments on heart tissue taken from mice, rabbits and deceased humans.
The first headline shows how promising the results of the preliminary research are: Yes, a dissolving pacemaker could one day become routine in humans, but it is unlikely to come “soon”. And when a headline says that “dissolves harmlessly in the body,” we might reasonably think that it was referring to a living human body. Not so.
The bottom line
Why are we constantly bombarded with misleading headlines? A primary reason for this is because headlines get attention, clicks, reads, subscriptions, and a significant impact on media pages. Some writers and editors are prone to the hype because they know it will attract more attention. Others may not be trained to read or present medical news carefully enough.
In a world full of misleading health news headlines, here’s my advice: be skeptical. Look at the source and read the headline before you shop. And if your main media often makes misleading headlines, consider switching channels or removing that news source from your list.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing offers access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of the last review or update for all articles. No content on this website, regardless of the date, should never be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.