What we know changes over time but panicking over what was published last week is a bad way of assessing options for yourself
or your patients.
Now that medical magazines are under almost as much pressure as other publishers to get eyeballs to their websites and more
readers for each copy, even the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal are starting to look a bit lurid (or, at least, their press releases are). As every tabloid knows, bad news sells more than
good news. Sometimes this shock-of-the-week syndrome works for one company or another—usually, though, because a competitor
has had a hit from a "gotcha" article. Despite the occasional benefit, the whole process further undermines the credibility
of clinical trials, published data, and industry.
Looking to Vaccines.
Again, vaccines have shown us, in a stark way, how the process goes wrong. News outlets feel obliged to report "both sides
of the story," even if one side consists of a deranged naturopath selling herbal enemas while everyone qualified is on the
other side. To the casual reader, this looks like a split in opinion. When it is not just the naturopath on the other side
but a minority of doctors, things get even more confusing. Journalists will not easily abandon what they have been taught
about balance, even if they are trying to balance a whale and a goldfish.
Instead, industry, and government— maybe even the professional associations—need to find a way for journalists to give instant,
reliable context alongside the reporting of both sides of the story. This is easy to achieve with online panels, as any political
reporter will tell you. Did President Obama's speech on the deficit sway opinion or make a deal more likely? CNN had the answer
by the time the President had finished speaking. Will this week's Lancet publication affect how specialists use the medicine in question? We should have credible answers before the journalists finish
writing their pieces. If the answer is that 95 percent of specialists probably or certainly will not let the data affect their
use or recommendation, panic is much less likely to arise. We could use a variant of the same system to look at the cumulative
impact of successive studies.
If pharma does not get ready for these discussions now, a generation's worth of progress could be lost in denial, bashful-ness,
and risk exaggeration.