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The operation was a success (but the patients died)

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 21 September 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:664
  1. Jeanne Lenzer (, freelance journalist
  1. New Paltz, New York, USA

    How media spin distorted the outcomes of a study comparing radical prostatectomy with watchful waiting

    Last week, one simple health message dominated the US media: radical prostate surgery for prostate cancer saves lives. The media were reporting the results of a Swedish trial (see news p 613) published in the New England Journal of Medicine(2002;347:781-9)—yet the trial showed no such thing.

    The trial concluded that although radical surgery did reduce disease specific mortality, there was “no significant difference between surgery and watchful waiting in terms of overall survival.” A companion study published in the same issue of the New England Journal found that the surgery also failed to improve men's quality of life.

    Despite these conclusions, headlines across the United States were unequivocally positive about the benefits of surgery. The New York Times of 12 September said: “Prostate cancer surgery found to cut death risk”; the Chicago Tribune(12 September) read: “Surgery benefit cited for prostate cancer”; and CBS News announced in broadcast and website leads on 12 …

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