Media medicine: Arghh!

I sometimes wonder if those doctors who do health segments for various TV news outlets are “real” doctors, given the sorts of things they actually say. Oh, Dr. Dean Edell is a pretty evidence-based guy most of the time (one of his finest moments being his takedown of Dr. Lorraine Day on the air), but for all too many of these other docs, their brains shut down when the TV lights shine on them. Sadly, there were a couple of doozies of examples this week.

First up is Val Wadas-Willingham, producer for CNN’s medical news on Paging Dr. Gupta:

My husband’s best friend, Hans, was supposed to be in our wedding. But three weeks before the ceremony, Hans learned he had testicular cancer. He was 38. The prognosis wasn’t good. The cancer had spread to his lungs, part of his stomach and his liver. We visited Hans a few days before we left on our honeymoon. He looked awful, and we were not optimistic that he would be alive when we returned. In a cold and dingy hospital room, we bowed our heads and prayed for our friend. The doctor who was treating Hans came into the room too, and the three of us held hands and prayed together.

By the time we got back from our honeymoon he was sitting up in bed. Six weeks later he would walk out of that hospital, minus part of his lung, and he would live way beyond the number of years the doctors had given him. I believe it was a miracle. Now, I have another friend who is a Harvard-educated scientist who will tell you that no miracle took place. He’s an atheist and believes that everything that happens can be explained scientifically. He would say that God didn’t save Hans, but rather, the doctors did. In many ways I can’t argue. Hans was treated with a cutting-edge vaccine designed to fight testicular cancer, much like Lance Armstrong’s treatment. But there was something in that room the night we prayed that makes me believe it was more than just a vaccine that kept Hans alive. I believe prayer, hope and faith had an awful lot to do with his healing.

She then blathers on about how “lots of studies” have been done on the effect of prayer, credulously saying that “a good many” have shown that believers are “healthier” (the evidence for this is riddled with problems and dubious at best). For a topper, she writes:

But I will never forget that day in that hospital, when three people joined to ask for help from a higher power. I believe prayer works.


This is the freakin’ Producer for the Medical News for one of the two biggest cable news outlets saying that prayer can heal the sick! Even if Wadas-Willingham believes this to be the case, it is highly inappropriate to be stating as much on an official CNN blog, which is represented as a “behind the scenes look” at the Medical Unit at CNN. Does CNN support her view that prayer heals? (Probably, if it thinks it’ll make money.) Now that I know this is what’s going on “behind the scenes,” I realize that CNN’s medical reporting is almost certainly even less reliable than had previously thought. After all, if the producer is saying that she believes that non-evidence-based prayer (i.e., woo) “works” in spite of studies (a couple of which he mentioned) that found otherwise, while incorrectly asserting that the literature supports the contention that religious people are healthier than nonreligious people, thus revealing her utter lack of critical thinking skills and ability to assess the medical literature, then why should I trust her judgment about the medical stories that CNN reports? However, I must respectfully disagree with PZ‘s take on this, where he states that the real cause of her husband’s friend’s improvement beyond what was expected was sympathetic magic. No, no, no, no! Why not take her at her word that it was prayer and that the Big G intervened personally to save her hubbie’s friend, at least for a while (although why the Big G didn’t see fit to do the whole job and cure him completely, rather than leaving it half done, is an uncomfortable question)? Heck, why not do her one better? If Wadas-Willingham really believes that intercessory prayer heals in spite of the literature that says it doesn’t, I suggest that, the next time illness strikes her or her family, she or her family member should forego all that unnecessary modern medicine and/or surgery that just get in the way of the healing process and rely only on prayer instead.

Good luck with that. Religious people who are ill may find that prayer and prayers for them by others give them solace, and that has value, but that’s all.

If CNN’s medical correspondent, neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta, has any shred of self-respect (or respect for evidence-based medicine, at least), he should slap his producer down publicly–something that will never happen, of course. Another thing that will never happen is the appearance of a bitter tirade against God the next time one of Wadas-Willingham’s relatives or friends dies or suffers grievous illness. It’s funny the way that God always seems to get the credit when things go well but never seems to get the blame when they don’t.

The second case that irritated me is local, from a New York station’s medical reporter Dr. Holly Phillips‘ credulously reporting on the alleged benefits of Masuka honey (video of the segment is available there too). As my wife will testify, I became rather agitated upon seeing the segment, which began like this:

Already popular overseas, a type of honey with antibiotic properties is catching on in the United States.

Some say Manuka honey, only found in New Zealand, has naturally occurring properties which can assist your body against harmful bacteria.

“I have never endorsed anything in my life, but I’m telling you this honey works,” says Joseph Schilling, a chef who uses the honey to heal burns on his hands, among other things.

He says a spoonful a day has also cured his acid reflux without traditional medicine, allowing him to enjoy his favorite foods again.

“I had lasagna the other night, and I wasn’t up all night,” he said. “That’s the exciting part about this honey.

Honey enthusiasts say its antibiotic properties come from enzymes released by bees when they make it, and it’s being used to treat everything from stomach ailments to skin sores.

“It’s an organic, natural preventative,” says Fiona Nelson of Wedderspoon Organic, a company that imports the honey.

“It’s been overwhelming. People have told me it’s changed their lives,” she said.

But research on the honey is limited.

Emily Rubin, a dietician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, says there is no evidence that Manuka honey can replace traditional antibiotic treatments.

Yep. Testimonials and confirmation bias. That’s all that’s there. It followed the script for media coverage of alternative medicine to a T, including the absolutely essential appeal to popularity (“it’s popular overseas” and it’s coming here); the appeal to its “naturalness”; the requisite two or more testimonials; an appeal to ancient knowledge (the ancient Greeks used honey for medicinal purposes, always a nice touch, only surpassed by saying that it was used in ancient China or by Native Americans); and, most importantly, the five second soundbite from the token skeptic, in this case, Emily Rubin. I’m not kidding. She was on camera for at most six seconds. Sadly, this really is the script for most TV news stories about “alternative” therapies: lots of testimonials, no studies, and a brief blurb from the token skeptic whose words are overwhelmed by those of the credulous.

For the record, there is evidence that Manuka has antibiotic properties and that dressings impregnated with it can be efficacious in the treatment of chronic wounds, although there are no randomized studies comparing Manuka honey to standard wound care modalities, just small uncontrolled case series; so we really don’t know if it’s any better than how we normally treat these wounds. There is zero evidence for or against the honey as an aid for gastroesophageal reflux. Unfortunately, testimonials are not anecdotes, and, even if they were, the plural of “anecdotes” is not “data.”

If you wonder why people believe in woo so much and have so little clue about evidence-based medicine, you have but to look at how these issues are reported in the media to see one major reason why. Between credulous producers who believe despite published medical studies saying otherwise that intercessory prayer plays a major role in healing and telegenic but bubble-headed physicians willing to report whatever such producers think the audience wants to hear, it’s a wonder that evidence-based medicine ever gets reported at all.

On occasion, I’ve been known to daydream about being one of these talking head physicians doing these stories, leaving aside the fact that I’m not telegenic and that I have a face perfect for radio and a voice that’s best for blogging. (It’s a fantasy, remember.) Of course, even if those obstacles were overcome, I wouldn’t last past one or two segments about any alternative medicine. Even if I could tone down my skepticism considerably, to the point of nonsarcastic wishy-washy-ness, that wouldn’t be enough. If I expressed a skeptical, strictly evidence-based viewpoint, the audience would soon be calling up the station demanding my firing, and I’d be tossed out of there on my behind.

Easy.