Hitting a Nerve

Lay press stories about research: Putting them into perspective for patients


I recently had an unusual patient call. A woman I’ve seen for many years for migraines called to tell me her son was being hospitalized for appendicitis. He was scheduled for surgery in the morning.

A pile of magazines pinkomelet/Thinkstock

She called because she’d recently seen a news report about how people without an appendix may have a higher rate of Parkinson’s disease as they age. She was, understandably, concerned about the long-term risks the procedure could pose.

On the surface, as a medical professional, the call sounds frivolous and silly. The risks of untreated acute appendicitis, such as peritonitis and death, are pretty well documented. Surgery offers the best possibility for a cure without recurrence. Compared with the long-term, uncertain, risk of Parkinson’s disease, the benefit-to-risk ratio and options are pretty obvious.

The question of the GI tract’s involvement in neurologic diseases is a legitimate one that needs to be answered. It may provide new insight into their causes and potential treatments. The research she brought up raises some interesting points.

But that doesn’t mean there should be any delay in treating something as easily cured – and potentially serious – as acute appendicitis.

My patient called to ask questions, and I have no issue with that. To someone with no medical training, it’s a legitimate concern. But not everyone will call to ask.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

This is a hazard of early stages of medical research making it into the lay press. It may be right, it may be wrong, but it’s too early to tell either way. We have years of training to help us recognize the uncertainties of preliminary data, but the general public doesn’t. Stories like this create interest and raise questions in the medical literature and fear and anxiety in the lay press.

I’m a strong supporter of freedom of the press, and certainly they have every right to air or publish such stories. But they should also be put in perspective at the beginning, not the bottom, and make it clear the findings are far from proven.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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