Journalists Do Employers Few Favors When Parsing Health Care Studies

I’ll be attending my first Chief Learning Officer Spring Symposium after working at this company for a few years now.

CLO, which is Workforce’s sister publication under Human Capital Media, is a niche publication focused on learning and development.

At the Symposium, my colleagues and I will be conducting interviews with learning experts about topics in L&D. Not my usual beat, but a good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, starting to prepare for this conference got me invested in one of my favorite topics — health — and how L&D fits into employee health.

Here’s my jumping off point: If you’ve ever gone down the deep, deep rabbit hole of health care reporting, you know it’s often full of hyperbolic reporting, outrageous overgeneralizations and misleading study results that are, in reality, much more nuanced. You know the type of stories I’m talking about. News stories about how chocolate and red wine are good for your health! Drinking coffee can cause cancer … no wait, it helps prevent cancer!

Yes, this is anecdotal. But I’m not the only one who thinks this.

According to the Washington Post, “Few journalists seem able to understand flawed research design, a principal cause of untrustworthy research.”

This has an impact on the workplace. The article cites the example of the accountable care organization. The best available evidence shows that ACOs don’t work, and yet many workplaces and lawmakers don’t consider that. One reason? Media headlines that tout the results of poorly designed studies. “Programs like this are propped up by poor studies that gain prominent media headlines,” the article states.

None of this is to condemn people who don’t understand research. An excerpt:

“The path forward for science journalism will not be easy or obvious. The scientific process does not straightforwardly lend itself to reporting: Researchers may have weeks or months to structure their papers, which include complex statistical analyses and dense scientific jargon. Journalists often have only hours to convey the findings, and newspaper editors are generally not aware of scientists’ failure to acknowledge important limitations of their research — even fatal flaws that can debunk their studies. Moreover, the media aren’t the only uncritical interpreters of science. Even health experts routinely misunderstand research design or tout the findings of flawed studies. This is why journalists and scientists must work together to develop tools to better interpret the implications of research.”

The paper “Improving the Quality of Health Journalism” by Heini Maksimainen makes a similar argument about the “bad reputation” of health journalism and also makes suggestions on how to improve it. The big idea here? “Stop reporting on the latest research findings and focus on building a bigger picture.” Further, “Use research as primary source of evidence, not as a primary source of news. If you nevertheless end up covering a single study, scrutinize its quality, put it in context of previous research and use independent experts.”

This paper is geared specifically on news outlets that cover health, but I find something practical here for the layman, too: the importance of scrutiny and skepticism. Even as the readers of health news rather than the purveyors, not accepting information blindly is a good thing. Ask questions! Lean into your doubts! Learn basic facts about different types of studies so that you know that value and limitations of each!

Finally, an article in Medium explored how people misunderstand scientific research, partly because research is “pretty boring.” Most research consists of “hundreds of esoteric studies that are meaningless to most people.” Research is slow, boring and methodical. Despite this truth, we regularly see “The Big Scary Study” pop up in the news. This type of story is titled something like, “New Study Proves Common Thing Is Actually Killing You.”

There are more lessons here on comprehending research. One important one is correlation versus causation. Is one factor causing the other, or are they both influenced by a common third factor? For example, a common third factor this article mentions is wealth. When researchers don’t take wealth into account in their studies, they miss the fact that wealthy people are usually healthier than poor people.

One of the Medium article’s suggestions for understanding studies is to go past the viral headline and read what the scientist says about their own research. They’ll probably mention other potential explanations for the result they notice. In general they will be more pragmatic and less sensational when talking about results.

With all this mixed messaging in health reporting and exaggerated research findings that can contradict each other, how do people learn accurate, factual, nuanced, maybe even boring facts about health?

Since employers are increasingly invested in employee health, what information do they rely on? Are organizations also receiving confusing, oversimplified health information and/or unrealistic health advice?

The idea I’m getting at is health literacy, which I believe is too complicated for any singular workplace program. I’d also like to argue that maybe organizations should carefully consider their own health literacy, not just employees interpret the information. Some questions to consider:

  • What assumptions do the organization and its leaders make about health?
  • Do they automatically assume overweight employees are unhealthier and/or lazier than thin employees?
  • Do they know that there’s a difference between something being a risk factor for an illness versus a cause of the illness?
  • Do they tout the benefits of meditation and work/life balance while expecting employees to work overtime and rewarding employees who overextend themselves?
  • Do they rely on trendy ideas (10,000 steps a day!) to promote healthy behaviors or do they rely on sound, scientific facts?

I think it’s a safe assumption to make that both individuals and organizations could easily get lost in the hyperbolic nature of health journalism. A sound dose of skepticism and research could potentially help workers and the organizations that hire people make better health decisions and health programs.

More articles on health care journalism:

·      How flawed science helped turn chocolate into a health food

·      Why so many of the health articles you read are junk

Health journalism has a serious evidence problem. Here’s a plan to save it.

The post Journalists Do Employers Few Favors When Parsing Health Care Studies appeared first on Workforce.

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