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an Economist Intelligence Unit business healthcare

Bazian influences FDA recommendations on the communication of risk (sort of)

August 25th 2011

Well, actually our contribution is a mention on p.190 – but it’s a start!

The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has produced a guide on Communicating risks and benefits : An evidence-based user’s guide. It covers a broad range of contexts and considerations in communicating risk and benefits: from healthcare professionals communicating risk to patients, to how individual differences can affect the perception of risk.

The communication of risk is a skilled balancing act of accurately and meaningfully conveying information. When reporting results, the temptation can be to report the most impressive number, but that is not necessarily the most informative or useful to readers. The chapter by Fagerlin and Peters provides examples of common pitfalls, and recommendations on how to avoid these. For example, reporting a large relative risk reduction can make a treatment seem more favourable, without the contextualising detail of the absolute risk reduction – which may be low (p.56).

Gary Schwitzer, a champion of accurate and balanced healthcare reporting, and the publisher of the website contributes a chapter on news coverage of health stories (p.185-193).The HealthNewsReviews website is based in the US, and is similar to Behind the Headlines (which Bazian write with NHS Choices). It reviews health stories in the media, and rates them based on how well they perform against a set of ten key criteria.

His chapter discusses in great depth how risks and benefits are reported in the media, finding that reporting often either exaggerates benefits or minimises risks. He suggests that a major contributing factor to poor reporting is the lack of training for journalists in how to interpret study findings and report statistics, and Schwitzer offers advice on how reporting could be improved through journalist training programmes (like those Bazian has contributed to at the Royal Statistical Society) and cites examples of successful programmes. Schwitzer comments on the power journalists have in the flow of information to the broader population, he also cites Behind the Headlines as one of the useful free resources offering commentary on the quality of health care news stories which can help journalists (and anyone else) to reflect on and improve the quality of information they communicate.

The communication of risk is important as it enables patients and healthcare professionals to make informed decisions about care. Given the volume of health reporting in the media it is important that risk is meaningfully reported in order to avoid provoking false hope or creating needless anxiety. Equally, such information is vital for healthcare providers trying to provide the best possible care within increasingly constrained budgets to communicate the rationale behind decisions.

Bazian remains committed, through Behind the Headlines and all our other work, to increasing transparency and providing better quality, unbiased information.