Staking your reputation on a medical claim

Staking your reputation on a medical claim

One important aspect of writing a manuscript that every medical writer should keep in mind, aside from accurately portraying the clinical research findings of course, is to make it memorable. In other words, the ‘message’ should be as compelling, clear and thought-provoking as possible, and the text shouldn’t get too bogged down in exploring every single related issue.

However, problems can arise when the desire to make your medical writing stick in the mind overrides the need to demonstrate the reliability of your findings. A health claim, no matter how attractive, can end up being stretched and expanded beyond the proof of evidence. The result? Your manuscript quickly goes from persuasive to worthless, if not misleading and potentially dangerous.

We’ve all seen examples of this, in every walk of life. You see it every day in adverts in newspapers and magazines or on public transport, where health claims are made with little or no supporting evidence. Or they use evidence that is extremely weak but couched so expertly in the language of meaning and weight that it seems reliable. It can range from making ingredients for face creams or shampoos sound ‘sciency’, to implied claims over health supplements or exotic ‘superfoods’, to scaremongering people into buying services or products with wild, exaggerated ‘data’.

At best, the effect is to pick the pockets of susceptible people. But it can mean people having unproven, unnecessary, and potentially risky treatments or procedures, or people with serious illnesses being given false hope that they can avoid the sometimes scary world of modern medicine. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, and the battle against quackery and snake oil salesmen has been going on ever since the development of the rational scientific principle. And the problem has been highlighted in newspaper columns and books, including by, for example, The Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, for centuries.

But it doesn’t stop there. Poorly substantiated medical claims turn up in medical literature and promotional materials all the time. Big figures in bold type across the entire page of a product brochure can give the sense of a breakthrough or major advance. Yet when the data are examined in detail, they might not be so convincing. Or perhaps the text is littered with superscript numbers suggesting a well-referenced set of claims, whereas the citation list at the end repeatedly points to ‘data on file’, obscurely numbered studies or presentations at minor, untraceable conferences.

Unreliable data can even slip into academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. One of the most famous examples in recent times is the controversy over the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine stirred up by Andrew Wakefield. When he fraudulently claimed that it could cause colitis and autism spectrum disorders, it led to a sharp drop in take-up of the vaccine in the UK and Ireland. This was followed by a significant increase in the incidence of measles and mumps, resulting in deaths and severe injuries.

Science and medical claims are regularly scrutinised by organisations such as Science-Based Medicine, but as clinical researchers and medical writers, we all share a collective responsibility to ensure that all the claims we make are substantiated and reliable. Our medical writers make sure that your manuscript is well-sourced and meets the highest scientific standards.

About Frank Waaga

Frank has a passion for medical communications and over 12 years of experience providing professional and reliable support to product teams in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industry.
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