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Using Press Releases for Preliminary Pilot Data


On May 29, 2012, Stanford University Medical Center issued the following press release: Antioxidant shows promise as treatment for certain features of autism. The release noted that "a specific antioxidant supplement may be an effective therapy for some features of autism, according to a pilot trial'that involved 31 children...the findings must be confirmed in a larger trial before NAC can be recommended for children with autism."

In response, Steven Novella of the Science Based Medicine blog asks, "If this is a pilot study only and we should not base any firm conclusions on the results, then why the press release?" He believes the answer lies in the way the scientific community now disseminates its findings.  Gone are the days when studies were published first in journals that were read largely only by other experts in the field then presented at scientific meetings where their findings were hashed out in conversations that happened mostly in isolation from the public.'  Steven describes how the internet has increased our access to preliminary findings and health care information, which he believes is generally a good thing, but he cautions:

'The scientific community has to realize, however, that as a consequence of this, the conversation that scientists used to largely have with each other is now happening more in the public eye. In medicine this means that patients are reading preliminary studies and making health care decisions based upon the findings."

Novella argues against releasing press releases for preliminary pilot studies because he believes they are a disservice to the public, can lead to misinformation and confusion, and can erode people's trust in the scientific community.

This practice is also problematic given media's pressure to appease public aversion to uncertainty. As CFAH President Jessie Gruman writes in Our Preference in Health News: Uncertainty or Naked Ladies?, preliminary data may snowball into recommendations on which people base their health care decisions.  Gruman urges, 'We need accurate health news. And coverage is inaccurate when it omits discussion of the limitations of a finding, for example, or when it stretches to personalize the conclusions of a study in the interest of satisfying our appetite for certainty about the effectiveness of a drug.


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Conversation Continues feature ongoing discussions or news on current health topics with links to related materials.  They are part of the Center for Advancing Health’s portfolio of free, evidence-based coverage of what it takes to find good care and make the most of it.

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Evidence-Based Medicine   Conversation Continues   Make Good Treatment Decisions   Autism   Inside Healthcare  

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