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News stories may exaggerate hope for vision treatments

By Genevra Pittman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - News reports often overhype the potential benefits of novel treatments for disabling eye diseases, a new study suggests.

Broadcast and Internet news reports, in particular, tended to be more enthusiastic about so-called retinal implants than the studies they were based on, researchers found. And the stories weren't always scientifically accurate.

The hope is that such implants could one day help people who lose much of their eyesight due to macular degeneration or other diseases that damage the retina.

But scientists are still far from a guaranteed fix. Some of the implants have yet to be tested in humans.

"The promise is real. The availability is non-existent right now except in very limited trials, and the results are encouraging but honestly fairly limited at this point," Dr. Jack Cioffi said. He is the head of ophthalmology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and wasn't involved in the new research.

Many people with vision loss might not get such a cautious perspective from reading news about retinal implants, Alice Chuang from Brown University's Alpert Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island, and her colleagues found.

The researchers analyzed 93 news reports published between 1999 and 2012 that covered studies by six different groups working on retinal implants.

One of the implants, Argus II, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this year to treat a rare inherited disease that causes blindness. It was approved under a humanitarian device exemption, which means the implant has not been proven effective.

The rest of the implants are still in development.

The researchers judged the scientific accuracy, neutrality and realistic outlook of news stories on a scale of 1 to 5. Higher scores meant the stories better represented study findings.

Newspaper stories averaged scores of about 4 on each measure. Reports from cable, broadcast and Internet news outlets scored between 3 and 4 in every category, Chuang's team wrote in JAMA Ophthalmology.

"I don't think this would be true only about retinal implants. It's probably true about any relatively avant-garde or innovative research," Cioffi told Reuters Health.

"The harm of this is that it heightens patients' expectations, sometimes unnecessarily so. And you can imagine struggling with a life-threatening or vision-threatening disease, you're grabbing for whatever hope you can grab for."

Chuang, a medical student, said news stories aren't always clear about which patients a given retinal implant could help, or how far it is from being on the market.

"It's so easy for information to get lost in translation," she said.

But even stories that are overly enthusiastic about implants and pique reader interest are "not all bad."

"It does open the door for communication between the doctor and the patient," Chuang told Reuters Health. And, "In the future, (patients) might have a device that's available for them."

Cioffi said patients come to see him every week with newspaper or Internet reports about new medical technologies.

"Unfortunately, oftentimes they're oversold," he said. "If it sounds too good to be true, often it is."

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/QGSWAs JAMA Ophthalmology, online November 14, 2013.

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