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James Surowiecki
Paul Raeburn
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Why are the prices of pharmaceuticals so high?

We might imagine a 10-part series exploring this question, or a front-page New York Times story that jumps to two full pages inside, or a long story in The New Yorker.

Instead, what we see this week is a short...

Why are the prices of pharmaceuticals so high?

We might imagine a 10-part series exploring this question, or a front-page New York Times story that jumps to two full pages inside, or a long story in The New Yorker.

Instead, what we see this week is a short story in The New Yorker--a one-pager by the New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki, tucked in his usual spot inside The Talk of the Town.

In fewer than 1,000 words, Surowiecki tells us pretty much all we need to know about why drug prices are high and whether they are likely to stay that way. What's most surprising to me is that his discussion of the medical issues and the drugs is absolutely on target. I was surprised not because I expected less of Surowiecki, but because medical and pharmaceutical stories written by non-medical...

Scientists Puzzled over Mystery Illness Among Cane Workers
Faye Flam
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Most science stories detail journal articles or announcements by scientists, but every once in a while, a journalist finds a story about a new problem, question or crisis that draws on science for answers and help.

A cover story running this month in Science,...

Most science stories detail journal articles or announcements by scientists, but every once in a while, a journalist finds a story about a new problem, question or crisis that draws on science for answers and help.

A cover story running this month in Science, Mesoamerica’s Mystery Killer, tells just such a tale. (It’s behind a paywall). The author, Jon Cohen, explains how local doctors began to see a worrisome pattern - young, vigorous agricultural workers were developing chronic kidney disease. Many were dying, unable to afford transplants or dialysis. The disease seemed to concentrate in certain coastal regions, and was particularly common among men who cut sugar cane.

At first, a young doctor in El Salvador started to work on the puzzle. Now he’s been joined by others around Central America and the United States. A group in...

"Using marijuana a few times a week is enough to physically alter critical brain structures," wrote Karen Weintraub wrote on April 15 in USA TODAY.

That might be...

"Using marijuana a few times a week is enough to physically alter critical brain structures," wrote Karen Weintraub wrote on April 15 in USA TODAY.

That might be true. Then again, maybe not. The problem is that Weintraub doesn't know whether it's true, and neither do the authors of the study on which her story was based.

Sadly, the lead author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, thinks he knows. Hans Breiter of Northwestern University told Weintraub that "just casual use appears to create changes in the brain in areas you don't want to change."

In a blog post at MedPage Today, John Gever had little...

[Editor's note: The following is republished with permission from the Covering Health blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. This post was written by Brenda Goodman, AHCJ's topic leader on medical studies, who writes blog posts and edits tip...

[Editor's note: The following is republished with permission from the Covering Health blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists. This post was written by Brenda Goodman, AHCJ's topic leader on medical studies, who writes blog posts and edits tip sheets and articles intended to help AHCJ members cover medical research. It appeared on April 22.]

Recently, an editor sent me a study to cover on concussions in teenagers.  At least, that’s what we thought the research was about, based on the title of its press release: “Teenagers who have had a concussion also have higher rates of suicide attempts.”

And I was excited to cover the study. Like gut bacteria and anything to do with chocolate or coffee or stem cells, concussion is a hot topic right now. That’s partly because...

We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do ...

We've all been treated to countless stories about how much Americans do not know about science, so the Associated Press decided not to trample over that ground yet again. Instead, it conducted a poll in which it asked respondents how confident they were about the science that they do know.

The results are interesting--and confusing.

"Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time," is how the AP story--by science writer Seth Borenstein and pollster Jennifer Agiesta--began. 

As they dug into the results in the next graf, we saw a glass half empty. "Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the...

Doctors and medical groups who say the public can't understand the newly released Medicare data because it's "out of context" should look at the latest edition of On Science...

Doctors and medical groups who say the public can't understand the newly released Medicare data because it's "out of context" should look at the latest edition of On Science Blogs by Tabitha M. Powledge.

There they will find the context. Plenty of reporters and news organizations are doing a good job of providing the context that Americans need to understand the data.

Here's a case in point, recounted by Powledge:

A Business Day post by Denise Grady and Sheri Fink shows how the data can mislead. One example: a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan Health Services got $7.58 million in 2012 for more than 207,000 patients. Unbelievable, right?

Except, as it turns out, the doc directs a Medicare project...

Governments around the world have spent $9 billion stockpiling a flu drug that's probably no better than aspirin and possibly harmful.

So writes Julia Belluz at Maclean's magazine...

Governments around the world have spent $9 billion stockpiling a flu drug that's probably no better than aspirin and possibly harmful.

So writes Julia Belluz at Maclean's magazine in Canada. The story was prompted by a study and a new release from the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit research group that produces broad reviews of the evidence for and against such things as drugs, medical procedures, and healthcare policies.

In a new review, Cochrane reports that "Tamiflu (the antiviral drug oseltamivir) shortens symptoms of influenza by half a day, but there is no good evidence to support claims that it reduces admissions to hospital or complications of influenza." It reports that the...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's...

The news website of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences--known around the campus as SHASS--asked me to say something briefly about the Tracker and its mission. Here is how I answered SHASS's "3 Questions" for the Tracker.

This also gave me an occasion to bring up--yet again!--the story of the "immortal" jellyfish.

Enjoy.

-Paul Raeburn

Doctors should not accept money to promote drug companies that fund their research.

Hard to argue with.

There's a legitimate argument for paying researchers to speak, and it doesn't mean they become pharma salespeople.

Also hard to argue with.

The first of these statements comes...

Doctors should not accept money to promote drug companies that fund their research.

Hard to argue with.

There's a legitimate argument for paying researchers to speak, and it doesn't mean they become pharma salespeople.

Also hard to argue with.

The first of these statements comes from Charles Ornstein of ProPublica, one of the authors of "Double Dip: Doctors Paid to Advise, Promote Drug Companies That Fund Their Research," co-published by ProPublica and The Boston Globe. The story argues that Yoav Golan, an infectious-disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, is wrong to accept "tens...

Medicare, the government-run health program for older Americans, paid one doctor $20.8 million in 2012.

Of the 825,000 doctors in Medicare's claims database, 344 took in at least $3 million each, for a total of $1.5 billion.

This data has been kept private since 1979--35 years ago--by a court...

Medicare, the government-run health program for older Americans, paid one doctor $20.8 million in 2012.

Of the 825,000 doctors in Medicare's claims database, 344 took in at least $3 million each, for a total of $1.5 billion.

This data has been kept private since 1979--35 years ago--by a court injunction sought by the American Medical Association that barred release of any details of these expenditures of public money. The injunction was vacated by a federal judge last year.

This data from the Medicare claims database was released today by the federal government, which called this a "historic release of data."

The word I'd use is not historic, but outrageous. The first two facts above come from an Associated Press  story by Ricardo Alonso-...

Dude! Two medical stories defy 'rules' in science journalism. One's gnarly to the max, other's a wipeout.
Charlie Petit
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   Here're some rules of the first metacarpal on what a diligent medical reporter ought to do when faced with reports of cure: Glaze one's eyes at a study with just one data point; say whoa! if outside experts are all leery; Think again if it involves amateur treatment under utterly uncontrolled...

   Here're some rules of the first metacarpal on what a diligent medical reporter ought to do when faced with reports of cure: Glaze one's eyes at a study with just one data point; say whoa! if outside experts are all leery; Think again if it involves amateur treatment under utterly uncontrolled circumstances; Ditto if it cannot even describe what it was about the treatment that did the trick - if anything did. Oh, another reason to pause: Even if the so-called treatment worked nobody else is ever likely to try it.

   Such alarm bells ought be taken seriously. That is unless there are extenuating circumstances. Covered with froth? Even better. In the right hands, with the right caveats, almost anything can past muster. What's the self-canceling rule? Rules are made to be broken.

  Here's one that breaks rules and soars.

  • Live Science - Bahar Gholipour:...

On Saturday, Elisabeth Rosenthal at The New York Times began a story with a description of a woman with diabetes who wears a small digital pump at her...

On Saturday, Elisabeth Rosenthal at The New York Times began a story with a description of a woman with diabetes who wears a small digital pump at her waist that delivers insulin to her bloodstream. The insulin keeps her alive; this isn't a high-priced option for a wealthy patient. It's necessary care.

“It looks like a beeper,” the woman told Rosenthal. “It’s made of plastic and runs on triple-A batteries, but it’s the most expensive thing I own, aside from my house.” A new model, Rosenthal reported, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the pump and related supplies will cost the woman $5,000 this year, even with good health insurance. That includes insulin that once "cost a few dollars" and "now often sells for more than $200 a vial, meaning some...

Philip J. Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a former science reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, has announced that...

Philip J. Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and a former science reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, has announced that he will retire at the end of June.

Hilts, who took over the program in 2008, expanded its international reach and added training in video and audio storytelling. And under his leadership, the number of applicants for the year-long Knight Science Journalism fellowships  for science reporters grew from about 80 per year to about 150 per year.

"The Knight Program has been a tremendous asset to MIT, and a powerful resource for our understanding of the relationship between science and technology and the public," said Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean at the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. "I am...

Tabitha M. Powledge at On Science Blogs reviews the week's climate coverage (including some of our remarks here).

And she also notes an event that...

Tabitha M. Powledge at On Science Blogs reviews the week's climate coverage (including some of our remarks here).

And she also notes an event that I somehow missed: Jane Goodall's 80th birthday. I met Goodall once, at a dinner in New York, and she is not only smart, charming, and engaging, but she has some kind of aura about her. I know, I know: talk of "auras" makes me sound like some kind of new-age...well, makes me sound new-age. Instead of "aura," let's say charisma. Whatever it is, it makes you want to speak softly when you're around her, and listen carefully to everything she says.

She was probably 70 when I met her. I thought she was cool.

Powledge also collects comments on the discovery of the bones of Richard III, which gives me a rare opportunity to quote some...

There are only two things you need to know about medicines and ADHD:

Some kids get medicine when they shouldn't. And some kids don't get medicine when they should.

The first of those is reported over and over and over again. The second is almost never mentioned.

The New York...

There are only two things you need to know about medicines and ADHD:

Some kids get medicine when they shouldn't. And some kids don't get medicine when they should.

The first of those is reported over and over and over again. The second is almost never mentioned.

The New York Times has run a series of stories, mostly on the front page, about the overuse of ADHD medications. You will rarely find it mention--even in passing--the tragedy of children with ADHD who are not getting treatment that would help them.

If it sounds as though I'm taking sides, it's only to fight back against the widespread prejudice among journalists that the problem with drugs and ADHD is solely a problem of overmedication. I don't know how to diagnose ADHD, I don't know what medicines to use to treat it, and I'm not advocating more use of medication...