Cairo workshop to shed light in statistical jungle

Covering Medical Research by Gary Schwitzer

There is a risk for blindness facing anyone with prolonged diabetes. A news report on a new drug could state, accurately, that tests show the drug reduced that risk by a mere one per cent over a five-year period. But a full-page ad by the drug company could state, accurately, that its new product reduces that risk by a whopping 50 per cent. What’s going on – two figures so far apart, but both accurate? It’s a statistical choice. The drug company ad is citing “relative risk” and the news report is citing “absolute risk.”

How statistically challenged reporters can distinguish between the two will be covered during one of the many workshops at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo next year. Health reporters have to handle a barrage of research updates that come, dense with statistics, straight from scientists in the lab or crafted by the PR departments of drug companies, universities or other branches of the medical industry promoting their own interests. So how to read those studies and avoid their reporting pitfalls is a very big deal, and the organizers of WCSJ 2011 have planned this session to help.

The June 26 pre-conference workshop is to be an all-day event chaired by the authors of the recently published Covering Medical Research. This 60-plus page booklet is published by the Association of Health Care Journalists for its members, but will be handed out for free to everyone attending the workshop in Cairo.

The article follows on the website of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ).

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