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Lead Us Not into Expectations

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Have you noticed that when health experts discuss the high cost of care, they often assert that our demands for more and more advanced -- care are driving the upward trajectory of its cost?

I'm not certain what percentage of health care costs are actually attributable to physicians acquiescing to our requests for aggressive, high tech care and fabulous new drugs, but assuming there is something to that assertion, consider this:

A report on one case in which a vaccine appears to be warding off pancreatic cancer by ABC's Dr. Jennifer Ashton led health science media watch dog, Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview, to growl at her inaccurate and misleading reporting.

I can just imagine ABC's reasoning behind the report: the finding holds out a fragile twig of hope for those who are reeling from the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, their poor prognosis and the effects of its aggressive treatment.

Schwitzer is right: this is not good enough.

But it is fairly common. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in March found that news stories on cancer in large circulation newspapers and magazines overwhelmingly describe cancer as curable, often through aggressive treatments but with few side effects worth mentioning. Despite the fact that cancer kills about half the people in which it is diagnosed, side effects, treatment failure, adverse events, end-of-life care, or death were rarely mentioned in the 436 news stories reviewed.

With this rosy but false picture of successful cures for even the most threatening disease, cancer, is it any wonder that many of us believe that new and more aggressive treatments are more effective? Is it a surprise that we tend to ask for more testing and more treatment rather than less?

Most of us are mostly healthy most of the time, so direct-to-consumer marketing of wonderful drugs and positively biased reporting on advances in medicine showcase and define what investments in health care research make possible. We have little first-hand experience with the uncertainty, risk and suffering that are as much a part of treatment for illness as is relief from suffering and cure.

And if given the choice, most of us would prefer to believe that the latter represents the status quo and so set our expectations for health care accordingly.

More Blog Posts by Jessie Gruman

author bio

Jessie C. Gruman, PhD, was founder and president of the Center for Advancing Health from 1992 until her death in July 2014. Her experiences as a patient — having been diagnosed with five life-threatening illnesses — informed her perspective as an author, advocate and lead contributor to the Prepared Patient Blog. Her book, AfterShock, helps patients and caregivers navigate their way through the health care system following a serious or life-threatening diagnosis. The free app, AfterShock: Facing a Serious Diagnosis, offers a pocket guide based on the book. | More about Jessie Gruman


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Health Care Cost   Pay for your Health Care   Jessie Gruman  


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Cancer, journalism and skewed patient expectations : Covering Health says
July 12, 2010 at 10:45 AM

[...] Once again, it appears that a reporter has found the cure for cancer. And that cure is the out-of-context anecdote. Gary Schwitzer spotted the latest offense, a CBS story on a pancreatic cancer vaccine, and Jessie Gruman of Prepared Patient Forum connected the dots to explain how such reporting contributes to the skewed patient view of cancer treatment success rates. [...]