2015 marks the start of a new year as well as a fresh start for HealthNewsReview.org (HNR), the award-winning website that helps consumers make heads or tails of health news.
The site, created by School of Public Health adjunct associate professor and former CNN medical correspondent Gary Schwitzer, ran for seven years until funding dried up in 2013.
But now, a two-year, $1.3 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has allowed the site to re-start and re-think its efforts, as well as fund the new Center for Media Communication & Health, headed by Schwitzer and located in the School of Public Health.
HealthNewsReview.org launched in 2006 with funding from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation as a resource to help improve public discourse on health. A team of 30-plus reviewers — who range from academics to medical professionals to journalists to women with breast cancer — regularly reviewed health care stories that appeared in one of 20 top news organizations. Reviews ran on HealthNewsReview.org, which consistently garnering a quarter million unique site visits a year. By 2013, the group had reviewed 1,889 stories.
Plus, HNR’s 10 criteria for judging stories became a gold standard for health reporters that Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT said “ought to be printed on wallet cards for reporter … to remind them what questions to ask.”
When reviews stopped, Schwitzer continued to run the Health News Watchdog blog that resides within the broader site, but being the blog’s sole author — as well as continuing to speak nationally and fundraise — left him worn out.
In May 2014, Schwitzer was invited to speak at a national medical conference in Australia. As he got on the plane, “I thought, this might be the end,” he recalls of HNR’s future. On his overseas flight, he read an article about Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center (or METRICS), funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. For years, Schwitzer had admired the work of John Ioannidis, the co-founder of METRICS, which aims to improve the quality of scientific research. “I thought what I was doing regarding media messages was somewhat similar to what they were doing in the health research world,” says Schwitzer, “So maybe I had a chance.” The lead turned cold upon discovery that the Foundation did not accept unsolicited proposals.
But Stuart Buck, vice president of research integrity for LJAF, had his eye on HNR and a month later, when Schwitzer returned state-side from Australia, he had a message waiting for him from Buck simply asking, “What would you do if you had funding?”
Now, seven months later, that simple question is being answered.
In early January, systematic, criteria-driven health news reviews will again be regularly published on HealthNewsReview.org, longtime HNR reviewer Kevin Lomangino will become managing editor of the site and HNR will now live at the School of Public Health in the newly created Center for Media Communication & Health.
With Lomangino on board, Schwitzer can focus on continuing the Health News Watchdog blog as well as bringing his nationally recognized health reporting workshop around the country. “Nobody who covers health care news rolls out of bed and says ‘How can I screw up today?’” Schwitzer says of training reporters. “You don’t know you’re causing harm if you don’t know what you don’t know. We’re trying to offer positive, constructive outreach.”
In spring 2015, a re-designed and expanded HealthNewsReview.org website will relaunch with a fresh look and a new addition: the review of health care-related news releases. “A lot of health news is based off of these releases,” says Schwitzer. “It’s time for us to hold them to the same standards.”
Days after news broke of HNR’s new funding, The BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) published a study examining the association between health-related science news and press releases. The study found that 40 percent of press releases contained exaggerated evidence and one-third contained exaggerated causal claims. Most importantly — and possibly most obviously — the study found that when press releases contained exaggerated information, it was more likely that the news would too.
Another change for HNR is adding School of Public Health graduate student and patient perspectives to reviews. “I want to have as many voices in this dialogue as we can,” says Schwitzer. “I’m excited to involve graduate students because they can take lessons learned through this site and start to become disciples of effective communication around the country as they move into their careers.”
“This is a true public service,” School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan says of HealthNewsReview.org and the Center for Media Communication & Health. “The Center will allow us to involve School of Public Health faculty and graduate students in the continuing conversation about effective health communication.”
If you’re not one of the A-list reviewers on HealthNewsReview.org, how can you know if news stories are misleading or inaccurate? Schwitzer weighs in on what you should look out for and what should make you think twice about health claims.
- If it sounds too good to be true, in health care, it almost always is.
- If you ever see a health care claim that only discusses the potential benefits, proceed with caution. “If harms are not discussed, it’s an incomplete discussion,” said Schwitzer.
- If costs are not discussed. “70 percent of the 1,889 stories we reviewed did not adequately discuss cost,” said Schwitzer. “Media and journalists don’t help the picture if they don’t include the staggering costs related to health care.”
- If you ever hear someone talk about a “simple” test, “run for the hills,” said Schwitzer. “There is no such thing as a simple test. Our decision to get screening tests should be among the most complex decisions because depending on what happens as a result, you may kick-off a cascade of issues.” When it comes to tests, Schwitzer said, people are largely uninformed and often have unbalanced discussions with their doctors where benefits are exaggerated and harms are ignored.
- In health care, more is not always better. And newer is not always better.
~Post by Sarah Howard