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Raising Hopes and Dashing Them

Medical news as commercial hook.

by Barnabas
June 2, 2004

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I’m of the age and gender in which the word "prostate" on a morning show grabs my attention.

Last week it was grabbed. The story wasn’t much, though – the announcement that the PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test for cancer does not catch all cases of the illness. Why this bit of common sense counted as news is beyond me; it never occurred to me that this test, or any, is 100% effective. My physician performs the standard tests with diligence and then reports it is "unlikely" that I have prostate cancer. If it were likely, he would do more at this time; since it is unlikely, he will keep the testing on a routine schedule. I know enough to be encouraged , which is all I can reasonably expect. No method is foolproof, just as no mechanism is unbreakable.

I’m not going to get into the merits of the announcement Maybe a major challenge to the effectiveness of PSA testing is in the offing, and will be news later.. But it wasn’t last week. So I will continue to take the test as long as my doctor orders it. As a patient, I don’t want the test dropped unless it is going to be replaced with an even more useful screen for cancer.

The episode caused me to think about medical television as I experience it. My personal impression is that medical news serves as a bridge to the next commercial. We all have bodies, and most of us worry about them at least enough to keep watching through the next commercial. I was hooked by the word prostate. Others are hooked by words like "diet," "heart disease," "breast cancer," and "cosmetic surgery," all favorite topics for medical tv. Usually we are told nothing new about them, but we keep watching anyway, hoping to learn something after the next commercial. Or the one after that. My concern for my prostate will give me opportunity to buy some antacid. 

In my experience, medical stories regularly fall into two categories:

1) Stories that raise hopes by promising a miracle cure (maybe in the next decade; the news today is likely  about a laboratory mouse that they think shows improvement). 

2) Stories that dash hopes by telling us that something doesn’t work as well as we had hoped - such as the PSA test. 

If there is real news in the world of medicine, it will come at the top of the hour and tell us what happened. It will give us facts, not hopes. An example of real medical news: an inexpensive cancer cure has received FDA approval and will be in the corner drug store next Thursday, in time to save Grandma.

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