How Media Tries to Sell Disease and the Use of the Skeptic’s Toolkit

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

The Internet is full of news reports about health conditions, bombarding people with all sorts of stories and information regarding health issues. In this jungle of information, everything should be taken with a pinch of salt to avoid worrying about a health issue that would otherwise be perfectly normal. What is needed is a toolkit to help to test the reliability of these reports.

Picture shows a female scientist holding a red transparent pill with futuristic scientific air interface with chemical formulas and research data in the foreground.
Media ads try to sell disease awareness instead of making genuine attempts to help sick people. (Image: Oleksiy Mark/Shutterstock)

The items of the skeptic’s toolkit all start with the letter S. The first thing that should be considered is the source of the story? How reliable is that? If the report is based on a medical study, is it strong and salient? What is the population of the research? Plus, does the study express both sides of the scale? And finally, does it make sense?

What is Selling  Disease?

In this article, the focus is on another S: selling something. What to look for in the report is whether it is trying to sell something or if it is genuinely trying to inform about a health issue. And by selling something, this does not mean medicine. But something different: selling disease. So what does that mean?

Tablets of many colors falling down on top of the dark table.
Drug companies convince people that they have got a particular condition to make them buy the medication. (Image: Tibor Duris/Shutterstock)

There are two ways of advertising a product. Suppose someone wants to advertise their newly opened donut shop. One way to promote their product is to introduce their shop and highlight the quality of donuts, probably with a coupon for the first visits. Another way to advertise would be to promote donuts in general, informing people about what donuts are and how beneficial they are as holiday or birthday treats. This is an example of what could be called “donut awareness ads”.

The same thing can happen in drug advertising. Instead of introducing a medication in the ads, pharmaceutical companies try to convince people that they have got the disease and that they need to take action to cure it. What is the best effort to cure the disease? The new drug that the company is advertising.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Case of Selling Disease

One of the best examples of such efforts is the Fox News story in October 2016. The title of the story was ‘Marisa Tomei Opens Up About Her Struggle with Chronic Dry Eye’. The article introduced Marisa Tomei as one of the estimated five million Americans who have a condition known as the chronic dry eye (CDE). It has symptoms like itchiness, blurred vision, and stinging. The film star is quoted as being reluctant to use eye drops regularly. So, she consulted her doctor, who gave her Restasis, an eye drop by Allergan.

So, how does the story try to sell awareness of a disease? The story is under the headline “Fox News Health”. So it is a news story. But it blends news with targeting the five million Americans who have the condition. If the disease is so severe, should it not have been covered by other news outlets? The last sentence of the article advises people who think they have CDE to visit their doctor to get a diagnosis.

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Skeptic’s Toolkit to Test the Story

Now, the toolkit can be used to test this article against it. Is it salient? Restasis received its FDA approval for treating dry eye caused by a rare inflammatory condition called conjunctivitis sicca. But CDE can have many other causes like some medications, dry environment, allergies, and several other factors. And it is certainly not applicable to someone who does not have the condition conjunctivitis sicca. Their CDE can be cured by ordinary moisturizing eye drops.

Picture shows an eye drop applicator in a woman's hand.
Restasis cures chronic dry eye caused by a rare condition, so it is not applicable to many people. (Image: Michal Ludwiczak/Shutterstock)

Another item of the toolkit is the source. The source of the story is an actor who is ‘paired with’ Allergan, with no independent quotes or comments from any other sources. And ‘paired with’ means she is a paid spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company.

What about the strength of the evidence? There was no indication as the story only mentions that Ms. Tomei benefited from using the eye drops. Also, there are no words on the pros and cons of the medication or the sides of the scale.

Therefore, based on the skeptic’s toolkit, the article is far from helpful. It cannot even be considered a news story as it is a pure advertisement disguised as a health news story. It is a perfect example of selling disease to convince people that they are sick and need to take a particular brand-name medication.

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Common Questions about How Media Tries to Sell Disease and the Use of the Skeptic’s Toolkit

Q: What are the symptoms of chronic dry eyes?

The symptoms of chronic dry eyes, or CDE, include itching, stinging, or blurred vision. It is caused by many factors like allergies, dry environments, or some medications.

Q: What is meant by selling disease?

Selling disease is an advertisement strategy that tries to convince healthy people that they have got a particular condition. Then, the company persuades those people to use their medication to cure the illness.

Q: What is the saliency of a study?

As an item of the skeptic’s toolkit, saliency refers to how applicable the results of a study are to a specific group of people. It requires investigating the population of the study to see how close they are in terms of conditions, lifestyle, etc.

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