When bad research is not critically reported by journalists

4 minute read

The lack of scrutiny by the mainstream media around medical research is cringe worthy

The news broke last week that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the US, but the lack of scrutiny by the mainstream media was cringe worthy, writes blogger Skeptical Scalpel

Yesterday I posted a critical review of the study “Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US”

I did not have time to address the media coverage of the paper, but fortunately the website HealthNewsReview did.

Their post started with “Seemingly all the major outlets carried the story, with headlines so alarming that they’d have any conscious hospital patient demanding an immediate discharge.”

They called attention to headlines which included the word “now” such as these:

CBS: Medical errors now 3rd leading cause of death in U.S., study suggests
Washington Post: Researchers: Medical errors now third leading cause of death in United States
Nature World News: Medical Errors Now the Third Leading Cause of Mortality in U.S.

They pointed out that the headlines were similar to the title of a press release issued by the PR department at Johns Hopkins and that using “now” in the headline implies that the incidence of deaths caused by medical error has increased.

There is nothing “now” about the BMJ paper. if you read my post from yesterday, you will know that it was based on studies from the first decade of this century.

The HealthNewsReview story quoted my criticism of the extrapolation of the 35 deaths in the studies reviewed by the BMJ paper ‘s authors into a figure of 250,000 deaths per year nationwide and suggested that those reporting on the paper should have taken a closer look at the calculations.

HealthNewsReview ended with a concern that studies like this might frighten people into avoiding medical care.

It could be worse than that. It may provide fodder for the anti-vaccine movement. Based on the Washington Post story, a completely bizarre analysis of the BMJ paper appeared on Infowars yesterday. Note the sub-headline:


A message to “quack busters” who attack natural health behind a phony mask of “scientific skepticism”: put your own house in order—that’s where the real quacks are”

Read it to the end to grasp its full impact and enjoy the irrational comments too.

That concern that the public might take the BMJ paper’s claims the wrong way was shared by some of the commenters on the BMJ website. Below are some excerpts from comments critical of not only the paper but the BMJ for publishing it.

There are many things we can do in medicine to improve patient care, but frightening the public by claiming that errors by their own caregivers constitute the third leading killer in the world, is not one of them. 

Makary and Daniel’s analysis has misrepresented the true situation in 2 respects. Firstly, their extrapolations from the literature are unrealistic, based on flawed assumptions; secondly the single case study which they cite is unrepresentative of the majority of preventable hospital deaths. 

Such an interpretation suggests that the authors believe that all hospital patient deaths are due to preventable errors. Most people who take care of cancer, trauma and cardiac patients know that there are many causes of death unrelated to medical errors. 

In the UK, the 2015 in-hospital mortality rate was 1.05%. A recent study of UK hospital deaths estimated that 3.6% were avoidable, giving an overall preventable lethal adverse event rate of 0.04%. This is an order of magnitude lower than the 0.71% estimate calculated by Makary and Daniel. If the true rate is closer to 0.04%, the total number of annual preventable deaths in US hospitals may be 14,166 rather than 251,454. 

Shame on the authors and publishers of this piece. This is a sensationalized title that harmfully misrepresents data, and seems to propel a dangerous paradigm against the medical establishment. 

And my favorite (goes for all the news media too):

Congrats on the huge clickbait title. The National Enquirer would be proud.

This blog was originally published on Skeptical Scalpel.

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