As someone who has worked in pharmaceutical communications for more than 30 years, it is fascinating to watch – in real time – how quickly modern medicine has mobilized to decipher this new coronavirus and counter with unique experimental angles to attack its vulnerabilities in the hope of saving lives. Conversely, I recognize how the daily whiplash of new, and sometimes conflicting, information can make people anxious, overwhelmed and even a bit confused about the progress we are making each day.
Consider the storylines that filled your feeds in recent months – video posts circulating in March warned about the use of ibuprofen; April stories suggested low vitamin C or D levels were connected to serious complications; June news noted that patients with Type O blood may be better suited to brush off COVID-19 than Type As. The latest? You may lose your antibodies after 2-3 months, but it’s your body’s T-cells that may actually protect you from reinfection.
Welcome to the wonderful world of high science being played out daily for all to see. As it turns out, most of the above statements have since been walked back as “anecdotal observations,” rather than treatment-based conclusions. It is what happens when our 24/7 “need it now” culture of information seeking collides with a traditionally-measured, patient and behind-the-scenes world of clinical research and discovery. That said, we should expect to see regular “breadcrumbs” of medical observations continue to spill over into social media and the news in the coming months.
“Everybody’s tracking this virus in a way that they’ve never done with any other infectious disease,” said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security during a recent New York Times interview. “For some people, it’s helped them understand what is happening. For other people, it’s been misinterpreted and not very helpful.”
Early information can sometimes do more harm than good. How do we make sense of the information that is circulating? Also, where do we turn for the latest and most trusted information sources?
As a communications professional who has worked closely with many of the world’s leading pharma companies, I recognize the tremendous pressure on the industry, researchers, front-line healthcare professionals and public health experts to share everything they know when they know it, even though it may change what we believe tomorrow. The industry must walk a fine line as it weighs what to share and when to share it, while being transparent and providing hope – without overpromising.
Following are some important considerations I look for when assessing the healthcare news and headlines that cross my desk:
- Sources Matter in Science Reporting: Be wary of sensational “clickbait” headlines attributed to unfamiliar media outlets. When it comes to credible health information, stick to trusted network news outlets for guidance (e.g., ABC, CBS, NBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, STAT, Axios). All are very diligent in covering important health news and putting it into perspective. For reference, the New York Times, Time, Axios Vitals and STAT Morning Rounds put out daily newsletters that offer up short, snackable bites of easy-to-understand information.
- Not All Data is Created Equal: Look for data coming from medical experts or academic centers tied to national affiliations known for exceptional research, such as the Cleveland Clinic, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic or other leading universities. A lot of the vaccine data in the news is based on very early studies. Most are entering phase three studies (very large trials focused on both safety and efficacy), which the FDA will review in deciding to approve for use.
- Follow the Leaders: One of my daily go-tos is seeing what Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (former FDA Commissioner @ScottGottliebMD), has to share. Also, while Dr. Anthony Fauci is not on Twitter, the organization he oversees is.The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases leads COVID-19 clinical research trials for the National Institutes of Health and can be followed @NIAIDNews. Other great resources include Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine (@JohnsHopkins), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (@CDCgov) and Harvard Health (@HarvardMed).
- Consider the Tipping Point in Transparency: As mentioned, the world’s leading pharma companies and researchers are under great pressure to identify, test and deliver safe and effective treatments and vaccines – in record time. Couple that with the nation’s urgency for updates, answers and timing, and you’re likely to have leaks or speculation based on very preliminary data that is not yet fully vetted by the medical community or based on large and well-designed studies.
Whether we appreciate it yet or not, each of us has a historical front-row seat as our nation’s best and brightest in medicine work tirelessly to crack the code on COVID-19, and arm our frontline healthcare heroes with the tools they need to treat the sick and save lives. Amazingly, global pharma companies – and even countries – that once competed against one another, have united to share research, technology and insights to help speed the delivery of solutions.
The story is still being written and the blistering speed of clinical research will continue to play itself out on the national stage for all to see, even if it’s not always perfect or conclusive. As such, the headlines will shift and new heroes will emerge, and each new day brings us one step closer to medical discoveries or breakthroughs that will help restore some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy to our lives. I am confident that our clinical toolbox will look a lot different by end of year than it does today.
In the meantime, take a moment to recognize not only the tremendous healthcare community fighting this virus on the front lines, but those amazing clinical trial and laboratory teams working tirelessly behind the scenes to develop a solution.
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