Tuesday, October 27, 2009

American Cancer Society vs. The New York Times

This article also appears in odwyerpr.com.

Feud Adds to Public Confusion Over Cancer Screening
As if there isn’t already enough conflicting information about cancer screening, a tiff between The New York Times and the American Cancer Society – two trusted sources of information – have the public scratching its collective head. It’s another example of how the current state-of-the-art in diagnostics, conflicting medical points of view, and the way in which healthcare news is communicated can cause people to either run to or away from their physician.

Veteran healthcare reporter Gina Kolata reported that the ACS “is quietly working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasize that screening for breast and prostate cancer and certain other cancers can come with a real risk of overtreating many small cancers while missing cancers that are deadly.” Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the ACS, writing in his blog, counters that it’s not true. He wrote, “The American Cancer Society is not working on any stealth project to change commentary on our website to emphasize the shortcomings and risks of screening.”

With a tone of exasperation, Dr. Lichtenfeld went on to write, “And here is another news bulletin for the press and the rest of the media: developing and accurately promoting guidelines are complex processes that don’t lend themselves to sound bite messaging.” So true. Cancer is incredibly complex and the screening tools are far from perfect. Yet, it was Dr. Lichtenfeld’s boss, Dr. Otis Brawley, who was quoted in the Times article. He said, “We don’t want people to panic, but I’m admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages of screening have been exaggerated.”

What’s really going on here?

1. We have a gender gap. Much of the controversy boils down to the fact that prostate screening is less effective than breast cancer screening. It’s a message not very many men want to hear.

2. Cancer diagnostics are not created equally. In addition to some screening tests having greater predictive powers than others, they do not differentiate between tumor types that may be more or less aggressive. This has a big impact on which cancers to treat or just to observe.

3. The ACS needs to harmonize its message. A third ACS executive, CEO Dr. John Seffrin, has now weighed in on this story. He said, “we have long acknowledged that cancer screening isn’t perfect. Sometimes cancers get overlooked. Sometimes cancers get misdiagnosed. Sometimes aggressive cancers can appear even after a clear screening test. It is important to acknowledge these limitations, understand them, discuss them with your doctor, and decide what is right for you.”

4. Physicians need to find the right language. The pros and cons, the risks and benefits, if and when to treat – they all must be discussed. It takes time, and it takes some skill to understand their patient and their ability to understand and deal with the facts.

5. The public needs improved health literacy. A corollary to number 4 above is that the public simply does not have a good enough grasp of the scientific concepts or the ability to assess the risks or benefits. If The New York Times and the American Cancer Society can’t agree or somehow misunderstand each other, then what hope should the average citizen have of making heads or tails of all the possible screening and treatment options?

Let’s hope we can get back on the same page and deliver timely, accurate and understandable information on what is literally life and death information.

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