Wise Patients Know to Read Behind the Headlines

April 4, 2008 by  
Filed under HEALTHCARE

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As Every Patient’s Advocate, I read mainstream media, medical and healthcare news all day every day. Study results, reports of medical errors, interviews — you name it, I read it!

One thing I’ve learned over time is that often the headlines, and sometimes the opening paragraphs of any given article, aren’t exactly representative of the real story.

It’s understandable. The people who write the headlines aren’t usually the people who write the stories and articles, too. The headline writer’s job is to condense information in such a way as to suck people into the rest of the story. They “sell” the article to the reader, so it makes sense for them to be sometimes inflammatory, often intriguing, and revealing of only part of the story.

But health and medical headlines shouldn’t be viewed the same way those in the Hollywood tabloids are. And too often, that’s how they come across. We are used to seeing those incomplete and often eyebrow-raising headlines about Brittany Spears or Elliot Spitzer — but should medical studies be treated the same way? I think not.

That makes it imperative that we learn to look behind those headlines. In particular, when a headline screams out something that may apply to us, instead of something that simply tweaks our interest, it demands further study and not just a quick headline glance.

Here are some examples from news reports, just during the past two weeks:

A recent headline about a teenage girl in Florida told of her death from botched breast surgery. The conclusion most of us jumped to was that she was only a teenager — but having breast enhancement surgery! Outrage! Disgust! What were her parents thinking?

Turns out there are some aspects of the story that make it a sad reminder of how vulnerable we are, neither of which is the result of botched surgery, breast enlargement or bad parenting.

For one thing, the young woman was 18 years old — it was her decision to have the surgery. Secondly, she was born with a birth defect which affected one of her breasts, so it was repair surgery she was having — not breast enlargement. And, she died from a reaction to the anesthesia she was given because, it turns out, she was born with a genetic defect called malignant hyperthermia, which exhibits itself only when tested by anesthesia, and can be deadly, as it was in this case.

Yes — there were problems in how her reaction to the anesthesia was handled. Those problems will be sorted out by the attorneys and a jury, most likely. But for us who didn’t know the young girl, it turns out it’s simply a very sad story of a perfect storm of problems. But there’s nothing about it that’s titillating.

A second headline speaks to a broader audience — pregnant women and those who drive or ride in cars with them. Since seatbelts were first installed in cars, pregnant women have avoided them because they “knew” that if an accident happened while they were seatbelted, it could harm the fetus.

So pregnant women and others were surprised to hear this week about the results from a study undertaken at the University of Michigan which resulted in headlines that read, “Seatbelt Use by Pregnant Women Could Save 200 Fetuses Per Year.”

That headline is actually quite close to what the story is — but with a few caveats. It seems that in a study of pregnant women who were in car accidents, some seatbelted, others not, at different stages of pregnancy, and with different outcomes to their babies, the study showed that there was an 84 percent better chance the baby would survive if the mother was seatbelted.

But then, post headline, there are a number of additional points about this study that are important to understand, too. Of the mothers who were not seatbelted, 62 percent ended in “adverse events” — bad stuff — to their babies. I wonder — does that mean that in 38 percent of the cases, the babies were OK? It doesn’t say. The report also says that 170,000 pregnant women are in car crashes each year. If I crunch numbers (and, OK, so I’m not great at math) — then I don’t know how any of those numbers really mesh. They don’t make sense to me.

And then, it seems there is a certain way the seatbelt needs to be worn, and that can influence the outcome in an accident, too. So, clearly, simply wearing a seatbelt is NOT what saves a not-yet-born baby’s life in an accident. There are other variables that need to be considered — and pregnant women are smart to know what those are, and to talk to their doctors about them. THAT’s what will save those babies’ lives.

A third study is a mixed bag — again — confusing unless we look behind the headlines about it. “CPR Works as Well as Home Defibrillators.” What’s your takeaway from that? Fairly straightforward — it seems like if someone is having a heart attack, then performing CPR has as good a chance at saving them as using one of those paddle zapper instruments.

But again — that’s not the entire story. Turns out a study was done, and those results are preliminary. They are also based on studying families that had CPR training, and owned an expensive home defibrillator. But the biggest surprise comes from this explanation, taken from the CNN report, “so few people in the study were stricken at home, and CPR by spouses in the comparison group was so good, that the 7,000-person study wound up being be too small to prove that a defibrillator can improve survival.”

My takeaway, then, is that this only proves that using CPR is a great tool…. and that’s good news! But if no one in the family, or no one who is anywhere near someone having a heart attack knows CPR, then what? Well — then — I think that defibrillator would work just fine. Perhaps the bottom line is that having both capabilities (instead of one or the other) is the best answer.

Bottom line to all these studies for patients? Reading behind the headlines, understanding the entire story instead of just what the headline tells us, can be very important. If you are a heart patient, make sure someone in your household knows CPR — either that OR purchase one of those home defibrillators. If you are a pregnant woman, then use your seatbelt — BUT — make sure you know how to wear it the right way to be most protective to yourself and your baby.

Clearer understanding makes for smarter patients. Don’t be a victim of the system and the headlines, too.

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