When the ABC’s 7.30 program ran a story about some pretty awful side effects from long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), a number of women immediately cancelled their appointments to have devices implanted in the following days.

In 7.30‘s story, two women described their painful side effects and trouble in getting doctors to remove the devices, while an expert commented on the influence of big pharma on prescribing drugs to patients, with reporter Sophie Scott introducing the idea by saying, “There are concerns the medical fraternity is too eager to prescribe the devices because drug companies are spending up big on promotions.” One comment was included towards the end by Dr Amber Moore from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who said the devices were safe as a contraceptive, and reversible. 

What the experts thought of that story

Associate professor Kirsten Black, University of Sydney joint head of discipline obstetrics, gynaecology and neonatology told Crikey she was “gob-smacked” by the report, which she said had directly prompted at least a handful of women to cancel appointments to have devices implanted last week. “I was really surprised by the lack of integrity in the ABC in their scientific reporting,” she said. “Using case reports to describe all users’ experience is really unscientific.”

Black said the literature supported the devices as safe and effective contraception, and the overall cost and risk of unplanned pregnancies was greater than the risk of side effects. She cited reports from 1995 of a contraceptive pill that had a greater overall risk of deep vein thrombosis, which resulted in a huge drop in women taking the pill in the UK, and a cost of £21 million for maternity care and £46 million for abortion costs to the system.

“There’s no method that is 100% risk-free. There’s no side effect-free option. These methods don’t suit everyone. These women had a really bad experience but that’s not the experience for the majority of women. The experience is mostly positive,” she said.

Children by Choice manager Amanda Bradley said the key issue the women seemed to be raising was that they hadn’t been listened to by their doctors, but the angle presented was to do with the risk the devices posed.

“None of the information presented was particularly inaccurate, but it came from an angle of these kinds of contraceptions are bad for women. The blame was pitched at the devices rather than the way that medical professionals are trained to use them or trained to deal with them and their patients,” she said.

While adverse effects and unusual events are always going to be likely to make the news, Bradley said adding context would help people see the risks as they are, rather than focus on the worst-case scenario. “It’s constant myth-busting for us about the secrecy around female reproductive health. We’re not going to get out of this space of women’s bodies being taboo if we don’t keep having good quality conversations around women’s bodies and reproductive health,” she said.

How news media can affect consumer health choices

University of Sydney professor Lisa Bero, a pharmacologist and researcher in evidence-based health care, said news stories about medicine and health can have an impact on the public health system, as well as individuals’ health decisions. Reports of medical break-throughs can make people overly optimistic (for example, about studies where paraplegic mice learn to walk again), or can cause great anxiety (for example, a story about predicting stillbirth).

“You don’t want everybody rushing to their GP every time they’re worried and it’s too much of a tax on the system, so these sorts of reports have to be accompanied by some sort of guidance,” she said. 

In 2013, a widely-criticised Catalyst two-part program on the ABC was dedicated to the over-prescription of heart medication statins. Two years later, researchers estimated that 60,000 Australians had stopped taking the drug, which they said could have resulted in between 1522 and 2900 fatal heart attacks.

Bero also said US studies had shown coverage of medical research break-throughs were overly optimistic, but they didn’t show whether that was because of how journalists were reporting them, or how optimistic the press releases announcing the research were. “Spin is quite prevalent in the literature itself … and then there’s a flow on to the media.”

An ABC spokesperson said the broadcaster had received 17 complaints about the story, including a petition from health professionals and organisations: “They have been referred to our independent complaints handling body. The ABC will respond to complaints when that process has been completed.”

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey