Reporting on Health & Medical Studies? Here’s How to Avoid Junk Science

medical writingPoliticians and the public aren’t alone in their confusion over how to diagnose the validity of health and medical claims. As a journalist, you may receive news releases seeking publicity for a new medical therapy, a recently-approved prescription drug, or a promising dietary supplement.

Unless you have earned certification by the American Medical Writers Association, you’ll likely have a hard time separating science from showmanship.

Consider the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Health on the Net Foundation your allies.

First, here are three of the product categories the FDA says are most commonly associated with fraudulent claims:

  • Weight-loss supplements attract vulnerable teens and adults who want to lose weight quickly and painlessly. The problem: the FDA has no authority to regulate dietary supplements before they go on the market. The agency can investigate health concerns reported by users, but only after they’ve allegedly occurred. Some pills labeled as dietary supplements have been found to contain sibutramine, an active ingredient found in the weight-loss drug Meridia, which was taken off the market in October 2010 after the FDA determined that it caused strokes and heart attacks in users. Typically sold online by foreign distributors, other weight loss supplements have been proven to contain blood pressure and seizure formulas not approved for sale in the U.S.
  • Erectile dysfunction formulas, even when labeled “all-natural,” often have been found by the FDA to contain the same active ingredients as those found in two prescription medications, Viagra and Levitra. The FDA warns that dangerous side effects have been observed when men already being treated with nitrate medications by their doctors take certain ED supplements. The federal agency’s hit list includes Zimaxx, Neophase, Hero, True Man, and 26 other ED products.
  • Cosmetics can contain practically any chemical because they are not regulated by the FDA before being sold. The short list of prohibited ingredients includes chloroform, vinyl chloride, and material from cattle that has not passed inspection. Mercury is allowed at trace levels. The exceptions are the color additives in cosmetics, such as those found in eye shadows, required to pass FDA tests for purity.

Consumers and investigative technical writers easily fall victim to cosmetic advertising and marketing claims, which are virtually meaningless because they have no legal definition under the FDA. Examples include:

  • Natural
  • Clinically proven
  • Allergy-free
  • Dermatologist-tested
  • Hypo-allergenic

If you are writing an article that references a prescription drug, dietary supplement, or medical device, your best bet is to search the FDA website for any consumer alerts to make sure you don’t pass along fraudulent claims.

The credibility issue impacts more than pills and make-up sold online. The prevalence of fraudulent online medical claims has become serious enough for health professionals and webmasters to join forces in the development of the Health on the Net Foundation, a voluntary certification system designed to help journalists and consumers evaluate the validity of such information. Websites passing the standards of the organization’s HONcode are identified by a blue and red seal.

Here are some of the HONcode standards for health and medical websites:

  1. Health or medical advice must be given only by appropriate and qualified medically-trained professionals unless clearly stated otherwise
  2. Information must not be presented as a substitute for readers’ pre-existing doctor-patient relationships
  3. Performance and benefits claims must be backed up by source data with specific HTML links to the published clinical studies appearing in peer-reviewed professional journals
  4. Advertising must be clearly distinguished from editorial content
  5. The source of funding to create and maintain the website must be clearly identified, naming commercial and non-commercial companies and organizations contributing funding, material, or services
  6. The website must provide clear contact information for visitors seeking support or additional information
  7. When site visitors identify themselves and enter personal information, the website owners pledge to meet or exceed the laws regarding the privacy of health and medical data in the state and nation where the website is located, along with its mirror sites

Since the foundation’s launch, HONcode certification has been earned by more than 7,000 websites world-wide totalling more than ten million pages.

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Health on the Net Foundation serves 102 nations.

The Mayo Clinic is one of the U.S. medical centers subscribing to the HONcode. You can see the HONcode seal at the bottom of the webpage.

So, next time you want to make sure you’re not pushing junk science, the best prescription is to look for the HONcode seal of approval or considering the above guidelines from the FDA.

Image courtesy of zirconicusso /

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