A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association (subscription required), "Potential Health and Economic Consequences of Misplaced Priorities," by Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, addresses some important themes for the public and for health journalists.
Woolf writes: "The United States spends more on health care—16% of its gross domestic product—than does any other country, yet its health outcomes are below average on major indices. One reason for the enormous health budget—$2.0 trillion in 2005—is that society overspends on unnecessary tests and treatments, many of which lack evidence of effectiveness and some of which induce net harm. ... Society invests heavily in medical advances (eg, breakthrough drugs and technologies), but such advances hold little promise for improving health if patients cannot receive them."
My research project, the website HealthNewsReview.org, evaluates news stories about new tests and treatments. It grades stories on how well they explore the evidence of effectiveness and of harms. After the first 300 stories reviewed, there are some troubling trends. And if the public forms its impressions of the health care system from such news coverage, then the public may be getting a very skewed picture.
It is also my belief that stories about medical advances may take time, space, or attention away from stories about how to control costs and improve access to care.
That would represent misplaced priorities in health journalism.