Disease Mongering by Misunderstood Media

000-disease_mongers_inc_600000Have you ever heard of a disorder that just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be anything out of the ordinary? Is someone just making up conditions to justify minor discomforts and sell a product that will “solve” the problem? Maybe you have felt skeptical of social anxiety or ADHD like the men in this comic. What about restless leg syndrome? Is it anything more than a twitch?

When marketing drugs to the public, pharmaceutical companies tempted by potential profit may misrepresent an illness’s significance, the need for people to get diagnosed for the condition, and an associated drug’s power to solve the problem. Campaigning for Requip (ropinirole), British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline promoted “restless leg syndrome” (RLS) to the public through the publication of a self-funded study highlighting how under-diagnosed the condition is. This biased report seems slimy and dishonest to me but sometimes consumers are unaware, especially when the general media starts presenting the information.

rls-runaway-legsSteven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz suggest in their article, “Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick,” that the media often supports “disease mongering” through the way personnel present health-related information to an audience. In a database search of two years’ worth of articles, 33 articles mentioned restless leg syndrome and very few questioned the validity of data or introduced other perspectives than the one promoting the disease. Half of these articles suggested that the RLS is under-diagnosed, three-quarters presented intensely negative consequences of RLS without treatment, a third referred to ropinirole’s effects as “miraculous,” and one-fifth of articles referred readers to the RLS “non-profit” that GlaxoSmithKline, the company that sells ropinirole, subsidizes.

rls-dogThe media’s job is to inform their audience of important issues with a perspective as truthful and unbiased as possible. Methods of presenting scientific information should not be any different from the critical analysis the media applies to politics, crime, or world issues. Journalists and news anchors need to question new research studies and only present the most accurate, honest, and statistically significant results instead of
dramatic “miracle stories” that temptingly draw in an audience. Over-dramatizing a disease to convince the public they are sick and thus need a specific drug is deceitful. Without a healthy degree of skepticism, the media can easily fall into a pharmaceutical company’s disease mongering trap. Print and video news outlets can avoid the trap by contextualizing study results and giving actual statistical evidence rather than individuals’ personal stories.

For the majority of individuals who do not follow research studies on their own but rely on the media to communicate findings, it’s necessary to question the information getting presented. Even though the media can be convincing and researchers hold a sense of authority, the public can question the methods, the results, and the significance of a claim to assure they know what is correct and trustworthy.


TV host John Oliver put out a video [https://youtu.be/0Rnq1NpHdmw] that presents more examples of TV news shows’ inaccurate portrayal of scientific studies. He concludes with, “Science is, by its nature, imperfect. But it is hugely important and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip.”

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