Health Headlines May Distort the Truth

by updated 2011/01/12


Seemingly every week I see headlines about some health issue in Google Reader that read like the following: “Asthma rate in US Up to 8.2%”. These articles always have an attention grabbing headline, that seems to indicate doom and gloom, but then contain the truth buried deep within the story. For example, below this week’s asthma headlines, you can find the following details. The rate for the past 4 years has been steady at 8%. The “increase” to 8.2 % may be statistically insignificant. And, even if the rate is not statistically insignificant, the increase may be due to better diagnosis and reporting.  Also treatment has been improving and there has been a corresponding 13% drop in the number of people reporting having an asthma attack in the past year.  Specifically, 52 of 100 asthma patients report having an attack, down from 60 out of 100.  So overall the news about asthma is pretty good, not what the headlines are saying.

How many times have you seen a health news story with an attention grabbing headline and so many qualifiers in the story that you are left wondering if there was really any story to begin with?  Now of course Asthma is a serious health issue in the US and the rest of the world, but is it really increasing?  As just one example, my 85 year old mother has been diagnosed with asthma.  If she had developed this problem 20 years ago, would she have received the same diagnosis?  Probably not.  At that time the doctor may have just indicated respiratory health issues due to age.

I don’t know if there is really anything to be concerned about in these stories.  Maybe anything that draws attention to our health increases awareness and understanding.  But maybe the increase is not only in awareness and understanding, but also in worry and paranoia?  Or maybe it does not matter at all.  Maybe these stories are just fillers meant to sell newspapers and get people to watch the evening news.

Will Sig

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