Feature Medicine and the Media

Screening propaganda: the television shows that gave harms second billing

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7643 (Published 20 December 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7643
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

When high profile programmes give an unbalanced picture of cancer screening—that is, they focus on the potential benefits while underemphasising potential harm—they may make it harder for the public to make informed decisions, writes Margaret McCartney

“Thousands of us who die of cancer could be saved if British cancer diagnosis and screening were up to the standard of comparable countries . . . NHS bowel screening is second rate compared even to what’s available in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in America.”

Too Late To Save Your Life, a recent current affairs programme made for the UK channel ITV’s flagship news series “Exposure” was watched by a million people.1 It argued that the United Kingdom does not do enough screening for prostate, bowel, and lung cancers.

The programme promoted a “cheap and simple” blood test for prostate specific antigen (PSA) to screen for prostate cancer. One now terminally ill patient’s GP was reported to have said that such screening “could cause more problems, psychologically, than it could cure.”

Gordon McVie, oncologist and former director general of Cancer Research UK, said, “We need a screening programme [for prostate cancer].” And the narrator said that the NHS’s reason for not creating one—that testing for PSA is of uncertain benefit—was of “little solace to men who die of the disease because …

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