Value of Prostate Cancer Screening Questioned by Two Studies

Posted on March 24, 2009  Comments (2)

Ben Goldacre, in his bad science blog, again takes on journalist’s articles of health research in: Venal, misleading, pathetic, dangerous, stupid, and busted

1410 men would need to be screened to prevent one death. For each death prevented, 48 people would need to be treated: and prostate cancer treatment has a high risk of very serious side effects like impotence and incontinence. These figures are not hard to find: they are in the summary of the research paper.

For complex risk decisions like screening, it has been shown in three separate studies that patients, doctors, and NHS purchasing panels make more rational decisions about treatments and screening programmes when they are given the figures as real numbers, as I did above, instead of percentages. I’m not saying that PSA screening is either good or bad: I am saying that people deserve the figures in the clearest form possible so they can make their own mind up.

So newspapers ignore one half of the evidence, and they fail to explain the other half properly.

They can also link directly and transparently to scientific papers, which mainstream media still refuses to do. Journalists insist that we need professionals to mediate and explain science. From today’s story, their self belief seems truly laughable.

He also says some journalists got it right including the Washington Post in, Prostate Cancer Screening May Not Reduce Deaths:

The PSA blood test, which millions of men undergo each year, did not lower the death toll from the disease in the first decade of a U.S. government-funded study involving more than 76,000 men, researchers reported yesterday. The second study, released simultaneously, was a European trial involving more than 162,000 men that did find fewer deaths among those tested. But the reduction was relatively modest and the study showed that the tests resulted in a large number of men undergoing needless, often harmful treatment.

I think it is true that most people need help having science mediated to some extent. But he is also right that those doing so need to do better. And also everyone needs to learn about science to understand the choices they personally and politically (for policy issues) need to make decisions on. Being scientifically illiterate is dangerous.

Related: Science JournalismPoor Reporting and Unfounded ImplicationsStudy Finds No Measurable Benefit to Flu ShotsHow Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off Track

2 Responses to “Value of Prostate Cancer Screening Questioned by Two Studies”

  1. mike
    March 24th, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    I dont even understand what the writer is even talking about? anyone else? anyone want to translate into plain english for us?

  2. Anonymous
    May 21st, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    Having known several men who’ve been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer, any testing is better than nothing. The tests may not be perfect, but I’d rather have a false positive than a false negative – if it meant keeping my husband healthy and around longer. Dying from Prostate Cancer is excruciating. By the time that most men have been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer – their duty to God & Country has been done (fathering children)- so infertility is usually not a concern (unless we’re referring to men who believe that their virility is the source of their manhood).

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