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Andrew Turner suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis that often spreads to other joints, which also affects about one in 200 Canadians. (LINDSAY LAUCKNER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Andrew Turner suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis that often spreads to other joints, which also affects about one in 200 Canadians. (LINDSAY LAUCKNER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Public editor: Careful what you call a ‘miracle’ Add to ...

An article in Thursday’s Globe raised eyebrows about whether it was a balanced depiction of a drug treatment. The first issue was the headline, which said in print: From bedridden to Ironman, via a medical miracle. Online, the initial headline said: From bedridden to Ironman: thanks to a miracle medicine. It has since been changed to remove the word “miracle” and say: one man’s journey with spinal arthritis.

Kathryn Hayward, acting editor of Life and Arts (which includes the Health page) said the print headline referred “to one man’s miraculous change from being immobile to training for the Ironman. We aren’t saying it’s a miracle cure. We’re saying his recovery is remarkable. It’s unfortunate if it’s deemed misleading. We never want to give false hope to patients.”

I would say that both headlines (print and the initial online) were a step too far. While the man profiled in the story has seen his health improve remarkably, the term “miracle” was hyperbole.

Questions were raised by Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, a group that reviews news stories. I agree with Mr. Schwitzer that the article could have been more balanced. The Globe article properly included the synopsis of the study into the new treatment of spinal arthritis in the medical journal Arthritis and Rheumatism, which said that patients on TNF-inhibitors were much less likely to deteriorate than those taking other medicines. But the article failed to include a more skeptical view expressed in the same journal, which said the results of this study should be interpreted with caution.

The Globe article also did not refer to side effects or the cost of the drug.

Michael Posner, The Globe article’s author, said he understands the cost is in the thousands, but many provincial drug plans cover it (although only for specific indications).

On the question of the more skeptical view expressed in an editorial in the journal, Mr. Posner said he would be careful not to rush to judgment. “There are competing views and the details are highly complex.”

I have no doubt of the complexity and I am not an expert in medical research and would be in no position to assess such work. I think that is all the more reason why readers should be told of competing views and given all the information so they can know whether to raise the possibility of medical treatments or medications with their own doctors.

On Mr. Schwitzer’s final point in his blog about an ad from a drug company running adjacent to the article, that ad is not on The Globe’s homepage, but it was attached to his version of the story, likely through a search term.

Readers can contact me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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