Experts debate the pitfalls of reporting about fertility treatments
By Cristina Gallardo, MA Science Journalism student
Writing about scientific advances in fertility treatments for the general public is a challenging task. If it is not done properly, the reports have the potential to create false hope or harm the feelings of couples who are struggling to conceive. City University London hosted a panel of experts from private clinics, doctors and media professionals to debate how communications about In vitro fertilisation (IVF) could be.
Nick Macklon, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Southampton, called for public relations professionals and science journalists to take more responsibility for the patients. He described it as a "sensible" issue which is not free of victims.
"The victims are the patients that get a false impression from these kinds of articles. They will think that their problem has been solved and they just need to go to that particular clinic and doctor. And they will end up paying a lot of money for those treatments," he highlighted.
According to Professor Macklon, author of the book 'IVF in the Medically Complicated Patient', some of the couples that decide to have an appointment with him "have been consumer-driven by PR" and they arrive at the clinic asking for a specific treatment that they have read about elsewhere.
"Science journalists need to take more responsibility on this sort of stories, not towards their newspapers, but towards the patients", he said. "Patients have the right to access to the stories, but the way the information is explained is key for them to take a fully-informed decision on whether they're going for the treatment or not".
In this sense, avoiding expressions such as "breakthrough", "outstanding results" or "the doctor was amazed", as well as referring to the original paper, can be useful to help readers assess the true repercussions of the alleged finding.
Dr. Hannah Devlin, Science Editor at The Times, says that the requirements that need to be met before these types of articles appear in the media are "too low", as they contain "all the ingredients" for an easy to understand story.
"There is always a human face on them, something not so common in Science Journalism", she continued.
Dr. Devlin also mentioned the time-pressure and the fierce competition with other media organisations as factors which can contribute to the misreporting of advance in IVF.
Professor Simon Fishel, Managing Director of the CARE Fertility Group, believes that it is necessary to increase the quality of both the media articles and the press releases from industry and scientific journals. Despite all his excitement regarding this technology, Professor Fishel reckons that it is not perfect.
"We desperately need to improve what we do. IVF technology is not pure and successful all the time. It is a very difficult area of nature and it is part of the reproductive process. We have to make it better," he concluded.