Our research has shown that patients definitely trust their providers, and they value information that comes directly from them. —Kevin Sykes, PhD, MPH
Explore This IssueOctober 2020
Even the best intentions at disseminating information can go south, noted Dr. Sykes. “For example, a reputable organization such as the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] or WHO may issue a public service announcement for distribution to the media,” he said. “In public health, there’s a sort of subgroup that does public messaging, and these individuals are often stretched so thin that they’re unable to make sure the message comes through in a clear fashion. So, when the reputable organization produces a massive press release, they leave journalists or others to cherry pick certain parts of the messaging.”
Print and television media, which are more likely to be used by the elderly, people in lower socioeconomic groups, and those at lower education levels, also have their pros and cons, said Dr. Voigt (Cogent Social Sciences. 3:1; DOI: 10.1080/23311886.2017.1302785) “Hopefully, the content has been properly edited by the publisher and written and presented in an organized, easy-to-understand format by a healthcare expert. But this information can be outdated. Television media stories may not be relevant to the viewer at the time they’re presented.”
How News Gets Ahead of Science
Although the pace of scientific research and the global news cycle have both accelerated dramatically in recent years, the nature of science itself hasn’t changed, and this mismatch has led to unique challenges in the medical news world. “People are unaccustomed to how science develops over time, and how we change our opinions on a frequent basis as more information comes to us,” explained Dr. Sykes. “For instance, we’ve learned an enormous amount about head/neck cancer in the last decade, and much of that has been related to human papillomavirus (HPV). But when HPV was first implicated in head/neck cancer, even at scientific meetings you’d get conflicting information from two different presenters. It sorted itself out over time, and now we have a general consensus.
“But when it comes to an emerging infectious disease like COVID-19, we’re stuck learning on the fly in front of everyone,” he continued. “That has put us in a very awkward position, where someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci says, ‘No masks are necessary’ and a month later is put in the position of saying, ‘We really should be wearing masks.’ Uncertainty is used to attack credibility, when the uncertainty is just the reality of a world in which we learn new things every day. Communicating that to the general public is very difficult.”
Dr. Wang has experienced this disconnect on a firsthand basis. “In my own research of curcumin in head and neck cancer, we have published preclinical and early phase I data demonstrating its efficacy in suppressing cancer growth,” she explained. “After publication of these papers, the general media will report on the findings, but often the public doesn’t understand the extensive further research and testing needed before a drug is ready for clinical use. I continue to get email inquiries from around the world, asking about using curcumin for a variety of conditions. I have to explain that our studies are being done on a specific type of cancer, and further clinical trials are necessary before treatment can be recommended for patients.”
Currently, preprint servers such as BioRxiv and medRxiv allow for rapid sharing of study data among scientists, encouraging valuable transparency and collaboration. However, because these data are printed before they’ve undergone thorough peer review, their relevance might be limited, said Dr. Wang. “Other scientists should recognize this limitation, but the general public may not. Preliminary results may be misinterpreted. For example, preclinical data from a new cancer treatment that shows promising results in vitro and in animal models have a long way to go before being applicable for human use,” she said.