Hype or Hope? The Diabetes News Puzzle
Every step towards a cure is good for the diabetes community.
with Amy Tenderich
Editor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for dLife.com and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!
November 2008 — We read and hear so much in the news media today about diabetes – in particular about advances in research that tend to sound stunning, over and over again. Yet nothing ever seems to come of them, at least not for us human patients. Every "breakthrough" seems to be limited to laboratory mice.
It's easy to start viewing these headlines as the same old story. It's easy to start feeling angry and resentful about yet another headline announcing "a possible cure." It's easy to begin feeling like you'll blow your top if yet another well-meaning friend forwards you an article about some "diabetes miracle." Maybe you want to just tune it all out.
So is all this research news nothing but hype, or do we have good reason to keep up hope?
Last month, I was fortunate to be invited to moderate a discussion panel on this very topic with some of the country's leading experts – at the Diabetes Research Institute's annual conference in New York City. This is the yearly get-together of circa 350 supporters, patients, and their families, in which the Miami-based DRI reports its progress in research toward a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Their focus is developing techniques for islet cell transplantation and other cell-based therapies to restore insulin production.
Our panel consisted of several of the DRI's top scientists, a diabetes psychologist, the editor of a national publication, and a leader of a major online community for families of children with diabetes.
To my mind, the key message that emerged from our lively discussion was this: the way research works and the way consumer news media work simply don't jibe very well.
News cycles, deadlines, and space constraints force journalists to look for a single, "newsworthy" result they can tout in a way that grabs readers' attention.
Scientists, meanwhile, methodically tackle one isolated research question at a time, slowly gathering clues that will lead to improved treatments – and eventually also to major medical interventions.
The result of this disconnect is that wittingly or unwittingly, the media reports on individual research studies as if they stand alone – as if each study itself had been designed to solve the complex riddle of curing diabetes. While in fact, each individual study is part of much larger whole – a huge body of research that cumulatively does lead to great strides in understanding and treating this disease. In other words, each study addresses some important piece of a much broader puzzle.
It's important to note that we can't blame the overhyped headlines on the media alone. These days, scientists are also under pressure to publicize their work, to gain recognition (and funding) for their clinics. Very often, they're the ones initiating the stories.
And this is where the second disconnect comes in: what a scientist considers a "breakthrough" is not the same thing that patients expect from that term. A breakthrough in the laboratory is when researchers find their way around a particular scientific roadblock, or are finally able to answer a question they've been examining unsuccessfully for some time.
Patients like you and I hear "breakthrough" and expect something life-altering: a new therapy or device that's going to make our lives better / easier/ more assuredly healthful RIGHT NOW.
Let's face it: we're not that interested in a puzzle piece, even if it has some great potential for the long-term. The media knows this, so they report on diabetes advancements in the here and now.
I think that understanding this can help us patients be less frustrated with the headlines we read. Consider a little, next time you read some news bit on diabetes: what are you looking for? A quick fix? Good luck with that. An update on the incremental progress that researchers are making? You bet. And it should hearten us just to know that they ARE making progress.
dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.
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