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Beware of Fake News In Medical Reporting

Often, the information that we see in the media about health and medicine is not well-vetted or understood before being pushed out to the public. Dr. Gleicher explains what you can do to stay informed and not buy-in to the hype.

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Hello, I'm Norbert Gleicher, MD, and I'm the medical director and chief scientist at the Center for Human Reproduction. I want to talk to you today about the subject which hasn't been very much in the news but is increasingly getting attention. And that is the fact that so-called "fake news" also exists in medicine. And, unfortunately, it seems like, in all spheres of life, this fake medical news seems to be increasing. This is probably the consequence of increasing sources on the internet, many unsourced (meaning many present opinion pieces without any underlying evidence), but also because unfortunately the media in general (and I'm talking now here about our daily newspapers, about the major TV channels), they have significantly cut back on medical reporting. As recently as 10-15 years ago, most newspapers had highly specialized medical and/or science reporters on staff who did nothing else but write about medical news or scientific news. Very few major media outlets today still maintain such specialized writers. Indeed, some of the more prominent science writers work on a per-case basis (meaning if they have a nice story, they try to sell it to various magazines or newspapers, but they are usually not directly employed by papers), so budget cuts in the media (particularly in the print media) have completely changed the science reporting scene and that includes reporting on a new medical developments. In addition, we are facing somewhat of a publishing crisis also in the medical literature. More and more, we see situations where sometimes even quite prominent investigators are discovered to have either withheld information in the papers about conflicts of interest or sometimes even manipulated data. In other words, there is a credibility gap today also in medical publishing. Many economic relationships that are supposed to be disclosed (as quite a number of examples in recent weeks and month demonstrated) have not been disclosed as expected. And once again, surprisingly, some very, very prominent leaders in various medical specialties were amongst those who have been withholding relevant conflict information. And this obviously biases medical reporting. We are also witnessing this in our own specialty, where conflicts not infrequently abound. One of our leading medical journals has an editor who has very, very significant commercial conflicts with quite a number of papers that have appeared in the journal that he edits, sometimes even products in which he himself personally has an economic interest. Editors in medical journals are very powerful because they ultimately determine which papers are published and which ones are being rejected for publication. And, therefore, they are particularly important in either introducing or, as one would expect, in preventing commercial biases to reach into the medical literature. Unfortunately, again, as a few examples just in recent months have demonstrated, not only in the reproductive medicine literature but also in dermatology and in other areas, very often those influences still creep into the medical journal publishing process. So, why are we telling you all of this? We are telling you all of this because we want to direct your attention to the fact that even what is published needs to be viewed with great caution. When you read some grandiose new announcement, whether it is of a product or of a treatment or in any other ways related to medical care, consider it carefully. Look what the sources are, look what the background information is that supports of the claims, and be very careful in following those advices. Listen to your doctor. Thank you.

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