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Grading The Nation's Health Care Coverage

We're a little late on this one but were reminded by reading a story in the latest print edition of Editor & Publisher about an online effort to review the accuracy of medical stories that appear in the press. Gary Schwitzer, the former head of CNN's health news unit and director of the University of Minnesota's Health Journalism program, talks to the magazine about his Web site,, which studies and rates the quality of medical reporting.

The site reviews health stories that "make a therapeutic claim" about things like "specific treatments, procedures" and "investigational drugs or devices." The reviews, according to the site, are conducted by "a multi-disciplinary team of reviewers from journalism, medicine, health services research and public health" and the reviews are dedicated to supporting the "accuracy, balance" and "completeness" of health journalism. According to the article, the site is funded by a non-profit, the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. Schwitzer tells E&P:

There is so much high-quality health journalism being done … but there are still far too many [health reporters] who are thrown into this beat without the time or training or inclination to do it right.
A quick look at the site finds reviews of recent health stories from outlets like The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Wall Street Journal. Of the 146 reviews on the site, the most recent involving CBS News was an April 25th "Early Show" segment about a study claiming that regular calcium supplements may help prevent fractures in older people. The story was given one of five stars. You can read the full review here, but here is a sample:
This television morning show "Health Watch" segment discusses results of a recent study which showed that calcium supplements are effective in preventing fractures. These results seem to contradict the much publicized recent results from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), which found that calcium supplementation does not have any affect on the risk of fractures. This story does adequately highlight the main difference between these two results – this study looked at the subgroup of women who were at least 80% compliant, whereas the WHI study looked at the overall study population.

While this story attempts to clear up the confusion in the seemingly contradictory results, the story doesn't quantify benefits and it exaggerates the seriousness of osteoporosis and osteopenia (low bone mass). When we are told that "34 Million Americans have low bone mass," there is no information on how is this defined. What is the seriousness of this condition? We are also told that "1 in 2 women will suffer a fracture in her lifetime." How many of these fractures are attributable to osteoporosis or osteopenia? While these two statements may be factual, the manner in which they are presented overstates the problem and only serves to alarm the viewer.

More from the E&P article:
In his ideal world, Schwitzer says the site would eventually "put itself out of business" by teaching readers to apply its criteria to health journalism on their own. And by producing smarter and more demanding consumers, the site seeks a higher goal – doing its small part to stem soaring health-care costs.
Next time you see a confusing or sensational health-care story, check in with them, see how they rate it.