In 2005 and 2006, hundreds of stories appeared in the Australian media about the difficulties some breast cancer patients were facing because they could not afford access to a new drug, Herceptin.

Researchers have now analysed the television news coverage of this issue, and their conclusions raise some sobering lessons for those involved in communicating health matters to the public — whether journalists, doctors or advocacy groups.

Their findings suggest that the media presented an overly optimistic view of the benefits of Herceptin, and put undue pressure on the Government to subsidise a drug whose long term benefits and risks for women with early breast cancer are not yet known.

The researchers analysed all 239 news stories mentioning Herceptin that were broadcast on five Sydney free-to-air channels between 17 May 2005 and 31 October 2006.

The main theme of the stories, according to a report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, was that Herceptin was a “wonder drug” made unaffordable to women who needed it “by government indifference, labyrinthine bureaucracy and unacceptable, cruel financial parsimony”.

The University of Sydney researchers said that not a single story raised questions about the price being demanded by Roche from the Australian Government for Herceptin. The Government was portrayed as being mean-spirited, while Roche was not seen to be playing any role in keeping Australian women of ordinary means from accessing Herceptin.

The researchers concluded that: “emotive accounts and images of individuals facing the threat of imminent death ran over an 11-month period and were unambiguously aimed at forcing a shift in government policy. As one news host introduced a story: ‘now here’s an issue we’ve been campaigning on for some months now’.”

The researchers also noted that Australia was not the only country to respond to a concerted media campaign about Herceptin: the UK, France and a number of Canadian provinces also fast-tracked its approval.

I think the study reinforces my longstanding concerns about how the media can mislead the public on important health issues. But I have one bone to pick with the study’s authors — their apparent assumption that advocacy groups like mine were driving overly positive media coverage about the drug.

That assumption could have been better informed by contacting the Breast Cancer Action Group, which has been prominent in providing a voice for people affected by breast cancer for 14 years.

At the time, we were so worried by the potential for vulnerable women to be pressured into spending vast sums on this drug ($50,000-$70,000 a year before its listing on the PBS) that we took the unusual step of writing to all medical oncologists, asking them to clearly explain the likely impact of the drug to patients in a way that did not overstate its benefits.

We asked that they explain the likely impact of the drug on women’s absolute risk of developing a recurrence, rather than on their relative risk (as the latter tends to make the benefit sound much more impressive than it really is).

We wanted women to receive a balanced set of information, in terms they understood, and we also wanted it known that we supported the proper PBAC process running its course.

But we struggled to attract much media interest in our campaign. We supported due process, balanced information and informed decisions — not so newsworthy as the angle that the media ran with.

Remember this, next time you see a media campaign for the Government to fund a “wonder drug”.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.