December 2, 2009
We receive conflicting messages about our health every day from the media. Being underweight lengthens your lifespan. Being a little overweight helps you live longer. Caffeine is good for you. Caffeine is bad for you. Drinking green tea helps you lose weight. Green tea has no effect on weight loss.
The media are often criticized for premature or exaggerated coverage of medicine and science, as in the examples cited above. But could PR pros share the blame?
Practitioners working with hospitals and many universities have the responsibility of interpreting medical information from published articles and unpublished research from scientific meetings. Then we pass our summaries along to the media. Despite our best efforts, we may not be doing a good enough job of presenting medical information accurately.
A recently published study in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which examined press releases from 20 small and large academic medical centers, concluded that they “[F]requently promoted preliminary research or inherently limited human studies without providing basic details or cautions needed to judge the meaning, relevance or validity of the science.”
Never took a class on writing releases on medical research? Me neither. But I’ve worked in academic medical centers and written about medical research studies for more than 20 years. I’ve read hundreds of press releases about medical research, ranging drastically in quality. It’s not always easy to read, interpret, condense and prioritize the results from a medical paper. It takes practice, and a lot of it.
Here are my guidelines for writing a release on medical research:
Read the entire journal article or meeting abstract — In the case of a journal article, you may be tempted to cheat and just read the abstract (where you will get most of the information you need). But do your due diligence and read the whole article — even if you don’t understand all of it. There may be hidden nuggets of information that will add depth to your release and subsequent media pitches. Or your reading may raise questions that will lead to valuable information.
Disclose the size of the study — Always include the number of study participants. This is important because a study including thousands of research subjects is of greater significance than one with less than 100.
This information will help the media evaluate the newsworthiness of your findings. Your results may have to be novel or intriguing to garner press attention for a small study, but it’s important for both your own credibility and the accurate representation of the results to include the study’s size.
Include relevant information about the participants — Include information about the participants’ gender age range, average age, weight range (if applicable) and average weight.
Mention the study’s design — Double blind, placebo-controlled is the gold standard. For example, in the case of a drug study, some people were given the real drug and some received a placebo. Neither the participants nor the researchers knew who got what. This eliminates bias.
Is it a review of medical records? Then say so. Sometimes this is the only way to do research. For example, the hospital where I work implemented a new protocol to treat people on blood thinners who hit their head. The researchers weren’t going to treat half the patients and not treat the other half because that would be unethical. So they compared the records of patients who were treated with the new protocol to those treated before it was implemented and compared the death rate in each group.
A meta-analysis is a roundup of previous studies: It summarizes and sorts their results and comes to a conclusion. A good example is a meta-analysis that was done on whether child immunizations cause autism.
These are just several types of studies researchers do. Your own researcher should be able to explain them to you.
Another note: Always include the time frame of the study (i.e., data were gathered from August 2003 through December 2007).
Clearly state the results — Determine what the impact is on the public/patients. This should generally be your first paragraph.
Keep it simple — For example, I recently wrote a press release about a study showing that radiation from heart CTs can be cut by 53 percent with no compromise in image quality. That was my lead, but instead of saying “53 percent,” I said “more than half” to keep it simple.
Also, be very careful about extrapolating results from laboratory or animal studies to humans.
Disclose funding/conflict of interest — Always include the study’s sponsor, whether it’s a commercial business or a government entity. In this age of transparency, it’s important to fully disclose any potential conflicts of interest.
Identify the source of the publication — Include the name of the journal and the issue date. It wouldn’t hurt to include a URL to the article. Not every reporter will want to read the original work, but some (like Associated Press) do. Make it easy to find.
If the research is presented at a scientific meeting, then cite the name of the group as well as when and where it meets.
Give credit to the principal investigator — If your doctor/institution led the research, then say so. This only enhances his or her image as a researcher and can lead to interviews.
Above all, don’t make any claim in your press release that isn’t backed up by the published research or meeting abstract. Not only will you be embarrassed if someone spots your embellishment, but it’s also dishonest — and adds to the confusion.