KSJ Tracker December 20, 2013

Gary Schwitzer on bad health press releases: "Bah, humbug!"

Gary Schwitzer

A "breakthrough" with pigs and pomegranate? Drinking urine for longevity? Oreos as addictive as cocaine?

These are some of the public relations disasters cited by Gary Schwitzer of HealthNewsReview.org  in his fourth annual list of the worst health press releases he's seen this year.

"I don't think all public relations messages about health care are crap," he writes. "But most of what I see is. And I can't stand seeing public relations that may end up hurting the public."

Schwitzer cites a release finding "a direct link" between enriched pomegranate juice and heart health--based on a 10-day study of 24 pigs. The authors of the press release referring to urine evidently thought that was a good way to promote skincare products. "Urine may not be for everyone," so for that we have the best skincare products, etc., etc. Even such prestigious places as Johns Hopkins Medicine stooped to lousy public relations. In the case of Hopkins, it promoted itself as AMONG THE FIRST IN THE COUNTRY to perform a certain operation. Cool, right? Except that what that really meant, as Schwitzer learned with Google, is that lots of other places were doing the same thing. The release was accurate--among the first--but, c'mon: So was Decatur Memorial Hospital in Georgia.

As for Oreos and cocaine, that came from a study last 8 days at Connecticut College. In rats.

Schwitzer's list includes others, many of them intended to lure patients to products or medical tests they don't need--or that could be seriously misleading. One company that said women could learn their breast-cancer risk from "nipple aspirate fluid" was ordered by the FDA to withdraw the test.

My favorite misleading health news of the year was not in a release but in a television commercial for Remicade, for treatment of Chron's disease and rheumatoid arthritis. The commercial--one of those long spots that consists almost entirely of a recitation of dangerous side effects--says prospective customers should tell their doctors if they've lived or traveled in an area where certain fungal infections are common.

It's a good thing for Remicade's maker (Janssen Biotech) that most listeners are distracted from that warning by the images of vigorous, healthy-looking people on the screen, who, I guess, are supposed to be satisfied customers. Because if the audience was listening, none of them could take this drug.

Who lives in areas where certain fungal infections are common?

We all do.

-Paul Raeburn


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