Yellow Medical Journalism?

Analysis unveils fair amount of 'spin-doctoring' articles

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Just because you read it in a peer-reviewed scientific paper in one of the world’s top medical journals doesn’t mean it’s true.

Wait. What?

People have come to reserve a fair amount of skepticism for certain media outlets – supermarket tabloids, inflammatory news-network personalities, the New York Sun – but the world’s top medical journals? 

According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 40 percent of the best-designed, peer-reviewed scientific papers misrepresented research findings thanks to so-called “spin doctors” writing to show treatments worked when, in fact, they didn’t.

French scientists analyzed 72 of the highest-quality, randomized controlled trials – those with the most respected and reliable design – from more than 600 studies published during an entire year. Analyzing raw data from that selection of trials, the scientists called the studies’ reliability into question and found 40 percent misrepresented data either in the abstract or main text of the articles.

According to the analysis: “In this representative sample of RCTs (randomized controlled trials) published in 2006 with statistically non-significant primary outcomes, the reporting and interpretation of findings was frequently inconsistent with the results.”

The implications for consumers are enormous, of course, and suggest a new research model is needed to navigate studies where science, commerce, government and a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry all play a role.

This is why so many consumers turn to the Internet for health information. Their lack of trust that prescribed medications work and won’t expose them to more serious conditions and/or side effects reinforces the need for studies such as this one.

The French scientists’ findings arrive on the heels of a recent academic analysis of litigation against pharmaceutical giant Wyeth, a subsidiary of Pfizer. Ghostwriters were shown to have included marketing messages in medical journal articles boasting unproven benefits of Wyeth’s hormone therapy (HT) Prempro while downplaying significant health risks posed by the therapy.       

“Essentially, these articles claimed that Prempro reduces risks while it actually increased risks,” said Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor in the Department of Physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center, who led the analysis.

Review Date: 
October 5, 2010