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Click to get sick?

Cochrane disaster
Power of the press release
Comment

It is all too easy to make mistakes, and most of us spend a lot of time making sure that mistakes are minimised. It is called quality control, the art of finding out how bad you are.

Cochrane disaster

Two papers [1,2] chart the course of a Cochrane review that was wrong. The review concerned computer or web-based packages for patients, intended to change behaviour. It was published, criticised, and then withdrawn, when it was realised that the main conclusions were the wrong way round. It wrongly claimed that such interventions were bad for patients. Some main criticisms were:

It was likely that the complexity of computer analysis systems used contributed to the mistake, but it was not spotted by authors, peer reviewers, or editors.

Power of the press release

A press release saying that knowledge may be hazardous to web consumers' health compounded the mistake. It was picked up by the mass media, and appeared in many websites and newspapers, and on television and radio. The retraction was not picked up, and the majority of internet citations to the original publication did not mention the retraction [1].

Comment

Much of what we see in the media is generated by press releases. Most journalists do not look beyond the press release. They simply don't have the time to do so, or (often) the skill to do so. Few people read research beyond the abstract, and so the press release effectively determines what we hear.

So mistakes are made. Bandolier reads too much to be surprised by that. But those who are surprised, or who want to read the exceptionally insightful analyses in detail, just dial up the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org). You'll learn a lot and have a few prize illusions shattered.

For the record, the overwhelming evidence is that computer or web-based information systems for patients do much more good than harm.

References:

  1. R Rada. A case study of a retracted systematic review on interactive health communication applications: impact on media, scientists, and patients. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2005 7:e18.
  2. G Eysenbach, PE Kummervold. "Is cybermedicine killing you?" - the story of a Cochrane disaster. Journal of Medical Internet Research 2005 7:e21.

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