No more medical breakthroughs please! (Apart from real ones.)

There is a large and seething brambles bush at the corner of my house which is being cut down this weekend.  It reminds me of the thorny undergrowth of jargon and words without meaning that smother a lot of science communication.  All to the detriment of public understanding.  Like those brambles the language that surrounds  science needs a good prune…………..

Such is the frequency of’ its’ use that medical research can seem as if it is marching to its unwelcome and mesmerising drumbeat.  ‘It’ is more common than head lice in a school playground.  ‘It’ litters our news media like those pizza delivery offers, endlessly stuffed through our letterboxes (along with leaflets of course: have you got yours yet?  I haven’t and I feel very left out).

Yes,  when I say ‘it,’I speak of the journalists’ best friend and the public’s worst enemy, that word ‘breakthrough,’

There has been the usual litany of breakthroughs this week.  Some are dubious.  Others require ‘more research.’  Only the treatment for child peanut allergy developed at Addenbrooke’s ild Hospital in Cambridge really seems deserving of the accolade. But what do I know?  I’m just a peanut loving lay person.

Scientists complain (rightly) about the overstatement that often accompanies reporting of medical research and how it gets in the way of public understanding.  But they are not without blame.  A good many are happy enough to let the word go unchallenged.  And when you put this hype next to what seems like wanton obfuscation (that’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ to you and me) through language, it can end in complete bafflement for the audience.

Take stratified medicine.  I mean, you might well ask: ‘what the hell is it all about?’ The excitement from researchers is palpable. Just read the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) report from last year. [Actually don’t unless you have a strong head.]  It’s the academic equivalent of a dog drooling over his master’s dinner.  Revolution is in the air!  They say.

Yet press our colleagues on what is meant by ‘stratified medicine’ and they will use an abundance of military descriptions like ‘precision,’ ‘targeted’ or ‘right medicine [sic], right place, right time.’  Actually that sounds more like an advert for a travelling apothecary in the Wild West.  Anyway, it’s fighting talk that’s for sure.

They rage against the term ‘personalised’ it would seem.  Finally, when asked for the 18th time in the manner of Jeremy Paxman what it is, they will say something along the lines: ‘it’s really about better diagnosis so we can more effectively treat people, something we’ve been trying to achieve since the beginning of medicine.’  Ah! Now we might be getting somewhere.

Sounds like evolution to me.  In fact it is funny that science communication only seems to become more level-headed when it is on the back-foot such as in the hybrid-embryo debate a few years ago.

Thus, hype, hyperbole and a lot of protectionist jargon seems to have got in the way of a pretty simple message I fear.

That’s one of the key points that seems to be coming out of the OPMNetwork/Dialogue by Design public dialogue work on behalf of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and whose seminar I attended last week.  It’s a concern because, as this science reaches the clinic, patient choice is only going to be viable with good information and a sound understanding of what it means in practice.  As the organisation leading our national effort on stratified medicine it’s crucial that TSB listens and act on this public feedback if it wants you and I to respond positively to it.

In the meantime, what we need is a real breakthrough in this area.

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