Inaccurate Media Reporting
The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham’s September 20, 2016 blog entry, “Prescription painkillers are more widely used than tobacco, new federal study finds,” cites inaccurate data.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription opioid-related deaths were about 14,000, not 19,000, in 2014, as Ingraham reports.
These are still all opioid-related deaths, meaning an opioid was involved at some point, but may not be the cause of death. When a person is in hospice care, they are usually given opioids, so when they die it could be recorded as an opioid-related death.
Patients who are taking opioids for a legitimate reason rarely become addicted, so the number of overdoses in this cohort is minuscule. We need these medications too much to abuse them.
The CDC revised previous estimates in March 2016.
This is important because there has been a decline in prescription opioid related deaths since 2012.
In addition, the CDC does not say “opioid painkillers killed nearly 19,000 Americans.” It reports on deaths that were associated with prescription opioids, but does not have adequate information to determine whether prescription opioids caused, contributed to, or were only present in a decedent at the time of death.
Because the CDC’s statistics combine deaths that are due to polysubstance use and those that are caused by prescription opioids, it would be inaccurate for a journalist (or anyone else) to conclude that those deaths were caused entirely by the latter.
Christopher Ingraham also opined that Americans have a “voracious appetite” for opioids. This, too, is misleading, because it conflates medical use with non-medical use.
Worse, it suggests the demand for opioids is ubiquitous, which is not true.
About 50% of prescribed opioids for acute pain are not used by the patient. Instead, they sit in medicine cabinets where they can be stolen and diverted for many reasons, including to make money or to get high.
The federal report Ingraham cites makes the distinction by clarifying that 84 percent of the time, psychotherapeutic prescription drugs are used appropriately. America has an enormous opioid problem along with an enormous need for pain relief.
Omitted from the column is the fact that opioids are the only available and affordable treatment for millions, largely because payers are unwilling to pay for alternative therapies. America does have a voracious appetite, but it is to live a life where pain is tolerable. That, in turn, can contribute to the opioid problem.
But the media, in its hunt for compelling headlines, frequently sacrifices accurate reporting for a story that fuels narratives pushed by people with agendas. The Washington Post is not alone in misrepresenting the data.
Media Framing the Opioid Crisis as a Criminal Issue
According to Medscape Medical News, Dr. McGinty’s team found that “The news media frames the prescription opioid abuse crisis largely as a criminal issue rather than as a public health problem or treatable health condition.”
Media Myth: Babies Born Addicted
Another myth that is continually perpetrated by the media is the increase in “babies born addicted to opioids.”
Babies cannot be born addicted, but that doesn’t seem to matter to many journalists.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is the medical terminology for babies who are born dependent, but apparently, its relative neutrality makes it less appealing for editors and bloggers.
Public opinion that is formed by misinformation doesn’t help solve problems.
Journalists can make honest mistakes, but when those errors are repeated time and time again, they distract readers from the discussions that need to take place to honestly address the problems
Author: Dr. Lynn Webster MD
Purchase his book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us(available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.