Superlative Language Commonly Used for Cancer Drugs in Health Care Reporting

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Among health care journalists, use of superlative language to describe approved and non-approved cancer drugs is commonly used.
Among health care journalists, use of superlative language to describe approved and non-approved cancer drugs is commonly used.

Among health care journalists, use of superlative language to describe approved and non-approved cancer drugs is commonly used, particularly with regard to vaccines that have low response rates and drugs that have not demonstrated any survival benefits, according to a recent study published online ahead of print in JAMA Oncology.1

Matthew Abola, BA, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, OH, and Vinay Prassad, MD, MPH, of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, wanted to examine the use of superlative descriptors, or “inflated language,” in the lay media with regard to cancer drugs.

They prespecified 10 superlative descriptors, which included terms such as “breakthrough,” “game changer,” “miracle,” and “revolutionary.” They then related these terms to the drug in question, looking into factors such as its mechanism of action, class of medication, and whether the agent had already received FDA approval.

Examining Google news search from June 21, 2015 to June 25, 2015, they found 94 news articles from 66 distinct outlets that used superlative descriptors 97 times while referring to 36 specific drugs, with 3 articles not naming the drug. Targeted therapies were the most commonly referenced class of drugs at 47%.

Half of the drugs described had not received FDA approval for at least 1 indication. For 5 of the drugs mentioned, superlative descriptors were used in the absence of clinical data. In 55% of all cases, these superlatives were used by the author of the article without any other attribution.

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“A range of speakers used superlatives, but the majority were journalists, who may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative,” the authors noted.

Reference

  1. Abola MV, Prasad V. The use of superlatives in cancer research [published online ahead of print October 29, 2015]. JAMA Oncol. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.3931.

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