Archive for the ‘Science Communication’ category

Health journalists focus on initial studies that are often refuted, a new study finds

March 17, 2017

Photo by geralt

Will people read about null research findings? And are such findings news? These are critical questions facing health reporters, because news coverage often influences how people make their health-care decisions.

The problem is that positive research findings make more alluring stories, particularly if the new study suggests a potential cure for a horrible disease. But many of these initially positive findings are refuted by larger, more rigorous follow-up studies that journalists rarely cover. This biased news coverage can mislead the public with important consequences — such as helping to perpetuate the discredited link between autism and vaccines.

Health News Review recently tackled this topic, using the example of statins. Initial observational studies showed that statins may help boost survival from cancer. But later, more rigorous trials showed that statins don’t improve cancer outcomes. Nonetheless, the media heavily covered the initial findings, but barely picked up on the more reliable negative findings.

Researchers at the University of Bordeaux, France investigated the extent of this problem by analyzing the news coverage of 156 primary medical studies, as outlined in a paper recently published in PLOS One. They focused on studies that looked for associations between risk factors and diseases in six areas: psychiatry, neurology, breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma and psoriasis.

The study found that “journalists preferentially cover initial findings although they are often contradicted by meta-analyses and rarely inform the public when they are disconfirmed.”

Using a database of thousands of stories published in the general press, the research team discovered all 53 initial research studies that generated news coverage reported positive findings — even though two thirds of these initial findings were refuted by subsequent research. In contrast, journalists covered none of the 174 initial studies reporting a null effect and rarely covered null findings in subsequent studies.

They also found that journalists more often covered lifestyle research, which investigates factors like diet and smoking. Lifestyle associations received larger newspaper coverage, even if the initial studies were published in less prestigious scientific journals. The authors stated, “This preferential coverage further supports the view that the first journalists’ aim is to attract readers’ attention.”

Finally, the researchers offered some advice on how to remedy this problem. They suggested that “journalists should always ask scientists whether it is an initial finding and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.” They also recognized that it can be difficult for journalists to find objective sources to put a new study into the appropriate context, so they called on scientists to assist journalists. The authors concluded by saying that scientists have a moral duty to make sure press releases covering their work are accurate.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Too few woman scientists are invited to review academic journal manuscripts

January 31, 2017

As a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I reviewed manuscripts for several academic science journals and acted as an editor for an engineering journal.

This makes me an exception, according to a commentary recently published in Nature that reveals a gender bias in the review of scholarly publications. Journals invite too few women to referee, write commentary authors Jory Lerback, a graduate student at the University of Utah, and Brooks Hanson, PhD, director of publications at the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The peer review process plays a critical role in the validation of research by allowing experts to scrutinize the work of their peers before research results are published. Participating in this review process is also critical to a scientist’s career. The commentary explains:

“Participation as a reviewer for papers and grants has many benefits, particularly for early-career scientists. It is a chance to develop a relationship and make a positive impression with an editor, review-panel member or programme manager, who are typically senior scientists and are in turn likely to be involved in evaluating the reviewer’s future papers and grants.”

Unfortunately, Lerback and Hanson found that women of all ages have fewer opportunities to act as a reviewer for AGU journals.

Using membership and editorial databases, they identified the age and gender of authors, reviewers and editors for AGU manuscripts from 2012 to 2015 — creating a dataset that included more than 24,000 authors, nearly 15,000 reviewers, nearly 100,00 reviewer suggestions by authors and 119,000 reviewer requests by editors.

Analysis of this dataset showed that only 20 percent of reviewers were women, proportionally less than expected as 28 percent of AGU members were female and 27 percent of first authors were female. This difference was observed across all ages, so it was not due to editors seeking more senior reviewers who are predominantly male.

The problem, they found, was due to a gender bias in reviewer selection. At AGU, authors suggest reviewers at submission and editors prepare a final list. However, both authors and editors nominated fewer women to review. Female first authors suggested female reviewers 21 percent of the time, whereas male first authors suggested women just 15 percent of the time. Similarly, female editors recommended female reviewers 22 percent of the time compared to 17 percent for male editors.

Is this just a problem for AGU journals? The authors don’t think so. As the largest Earth and space science society and publisher, they argue that AGU is a good proxy for STEM demographics in the United States. In addition, they suggest that similar problems exist for funding agencies.

The researchers recommend that publishers hire more female editors and train their staff to combat this gender bias.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Discussing cancer: Online course offers tips to tackling tough conversations

October 26, 2016
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Photo by Serena Wong

Have you tried to talk to a friend or family member about cancer? It’s not easy. You might have blurted out something offensive, offered advice you weren’t quite sure about, or tried to minimize cancer’s severity or prevalence. Or maybe you just avoided the conversation entirely.

Even those with medical training struggle with cancer discussions. In response, a London-based nonprofit has created a free online course called “Talking About Cancer,” which offers strategies for discussing cancer risks, preventing and screening.

The three-hour course — which is designed for health-care workers, counselors, volunteers and others — is organized into short, self-paced modules made up of videos, quizzes, online discussions and role-playing with actors. I recently spoke with one of the course organizers, former journalist and Stanford alumni David Risser.

What is the course like?

“The course quickly reviews cancer myths and facts, and then concentrates on how to have confident conversations about cancer prevention. It’s an important area, because more than four in ten cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Another goal is to boost early diagnosis, by training people to encourage others to see a doctor.

We wanted to present an engaging course with varied activities, including a ‘real-life’ narrative that runs through the course. We hired improv actors to play two characters, Anita and Brian. Anita has health difficulties but is reluctant to see a doctor. Brian feels invincible, but has multiple habits — smoking, drinking too much, a poor diet, and even refusing to use sunscreen — that put him at higher risk… We were amazed at how strongly participants identified with the experiences of these characters, leading to passionate discussions about effective ways to talk about cancer.

The course is led by our cancer awareness trainers — two nurses with experience in engaging doctors, nurses and people without medical training. It’s open now, but you must sign up by October 31. Otherwise, we plan to offer another free, public run of the course early next year.”

What inspired you to get involved?

 “I am a Stanford graduate with a B.A. in history, and a past managing editor of The Stanford Daily. I joined Cancer Research UK after a 28-year career in journalism, in part because of my own experience with several family members who have had cancer. I struggled to talk to one family member who didn’t seem to want to talk about her cancer. That made it easy for me to avoid talking about it, which wasn’t the ideal outcome.

It was also difficult to talk to another family member about being more proactive about her medical care, which was inadequate at the start. It’s still difficult to know whether or how to talk to friends about prevention.”

What have you learned while working on this project?

“I learned that there are widespread gaps in knowledge about cancer, from causes to treatments to chances of survival. For example, many people don’t know that obesity is the second most-preventable cause of cancer or that alcohol is linked to a range of cancers.

I think the most common mistake when talking about cancer is feeling you have to know everything. It’s more effective to say ‘I don’t know, how do you think we can find out?’ or `What have you thought about doing?’ than to avoid the subject, make pronouncements or communicate incorrect information. Another common mistake is failing to listen, listen, listen, rather than fix everything. Sometimes it’s better to guide the person through what they are feeling and what they are concerned about, keeping it about them and not about you or your solutions. The bigger issue in both cases is to gently help people see what they can do that works for them.

While the course focuses on cancer information, prevention and early diagnosis, most of it is about how to have conversations about difficult subjects. The greatest lesson in the course is how to talk to people in ways that encourage behavior change. And that can save lives.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Not just an image: Radiologists boost communication skills

March 1, 2016
Dr. Marcus Maydew, radiologist from Creighton University, reviews an x-ray (Offutt Air Force Base).

Dr. Marcus Maydew, radiologist from Creighton University, reviews an x-ray (Offutt Air Force Base).

As a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, I’ve had plenty of CT scans, mammograms, chest X-rays and MRIs during my diagnosis, therapy and 20 years of follow-up care. So I’ve interacted with radiologists at many Bay Area clinics, including Stanford where I was treated — that is, if you count getting summary reports in the mail as “interactions.”

This type of interaction may be changing with the growing movement toward patient-centered care, which is a critical component of the new American College of Radiology’s Imaging 3.0 initiative. Some radiologists are now going beyond image interpretation by discussing test results directly with their patients.

“Many interventional radiologists are now creating their own clinics, seeing patients and following them like any other surgeon,” Sandip Biswal, MD, a Stanford associate professor of radiology, told me. “Patient interactions are also quite heavy in mammography, particularly if the radiologist sees something suspicious.”

As radiologists come out of their reading rooms, many need to improve their communication skills, and a new training program at UMass Memorial Medical Center, called “Coming Out of the Dark,” teaches first and fourth-year radiology residents effective communication skills through role-playing. The program is led by Carolynn DeBenedectis, MD, an assistant professor of radiology there.

The participants practice six scenarios, such as delivering bad news from breast imaging tests, with trained actors performing as the patients. They are evaluated by both the patient actors and attending radiologists with prior communication skills training. The sessions are also videotaped and reviewed with the residents. The same participants return two weeks later to role-play six similar scenarios in order to evaluate their improvement.

At the Radiological Society of North America 2015 meeting, DeBenedectis reported on last year’s pilot program results. Participants were graded using a standard communications assessment scale and their scores on average improved about 5 percent between the two sessions — from 74 percent to 79 percent for first-year residents. More importantly, participants found the training useful, as reported in a recent online story.

We could probably all benefit from improved communication skills. However, there is some controversy over whether diagnostic radiologists should discuss imaging results directly with their patients after their scans. Biswal explained to me:

In the patient’s best interest, we really need to take a team approach. The primary care physician or referring specialist has the best understanding of what the patient is going through, so they can better convey the news. For radiologists to sit down with a patient and give them imaging results without knowing their full story can be potentially dangerous. There is an art to conveying this type of information that takes years of practice. I think of it like this: if it was my mother, how would I want her to be treated?

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

QUEST Goes National

May 15, 2013
KQED QUEST interview photograph

Aquarium of the Bay Curator Chris Spaulding sits down with radio reporter Amy Standen and cameraman Josia Hooper for QUEST. Photograph courtesy of KQED QUEST via creative commons licensing.

Affiliated with PBS and NPR, KQED public media has served Northern California for over 50 years. In February 2007, KQED started its large multimedia series, QUEST. QUEST explores the latest science and environmental news, trends and issues. It has reached more than 60 million viewers and listeners through television, radio and the Web. QUEST mainly covers stories that have a San Francisco Bay Area focus.

Now QUEST is expanding to a national audience, joining with QUEST partner organizations from North Carolina, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin and the Northwest (Seattle). Together they have just received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a two-year collaborative multimedia science reporting initiative called QUEST Beyond Local.

The new series will focus on the “Science of Sustainability” in six key areas: climate, food, energy, water, health and biodiversity. Content will be developed for television, radio, the Web, educational assets and community outreach.

QUEST Beyond Local is scheduled to start broadcasting new content this summer. Stay tuned for my upcoming articles as a contributing author. Meanwhile, my health beat coverage has just moved  to KQED Science.

Tagging Along on a Fantasy Field Trip

May 14, 2012
The Field Trip Podcast ico

The Field Trip Podcast icon, courtesy of Kara Platoni.

Looking back, the only school field trip that I remember was our trip to the San Francisco Exploratorium. I enjoyed the fun interactive science exhibits, but what I remember best is the tactile dome. I entered into total darkness and spent the next hour feeling, crawling and sliding my way through a 3-D maze. The purpose of the tactile room is to explore a disorienting world in which you can only rely on touch. For a kid, the challenge is to do that as quickly as possible.

However, that field trip is tame compared to what Kara Platoni, Eric Simons, and Casey Miner have in mind. They’ve launched a new podcast, The Field Trip, that broadcasts their real world science adventures. To add a little more intellectual rigor, they also interview an expert guest in their radio studio for each episode. Beginning on May 14, a new episode will air weekly each Monday through June 4.

For more information on the podcast series, check out my KQED Quest blog.

What A Scientist Really Looks Like

April 6, 2012
Albert Einstein photograph

Courtesy of Sebastian Niedlich via Creative Commons.

The stereotypical  image of a scientist looks something like Albert Einstein, an older white man with either wild hair or almost none. The media often reinforces this image of a “mad scientist” in a white lab coat. But in reality, scientists are just a diverse group of people that mostly look and act like everyone else.

This scientist stereotype has been informally studied by at least two major scientific laboratories, Fermilab and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. About 12 years ago, a group of seventh graders came for a regular field trip to Fermilab. Few young people have ever knowingly met a scientist. So Fermilab had these students draw and describe what they thought a scientist looked like, both before and after going on the tour. While at Fermilab, the students met a diverse selection of real life scientists, including speaking in small groups with a typical white male, a young female and an African American male physicist. Before their field trip, the students mostly drew the stereotypical white man wearing a lab coat. However, their drawings after the tour were much more diverse and casually dressed.

Such studies have inspired a small group of people to demonstrate what a scientist is really like. Also inspired by Science Online 2012, they recently created a website where scientists can post a photograph and short description of themselves. Their hope is to challenge the stereotypical perception of a scientist. If you are a scientist and interested in joining their efforts, you can easily submit your photograph to be uploaded on their “This Is What A Scientist Looks Like” home page. However, I hope everyone enjoys the ever-expanding collection of photographs.


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