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Test your journalism skills – how to read a press release

August 19th, 2007

Dr Petra

A press release from the Journal of Sexual Medicine has recently been circulated to the media. To test your journalism skills I’ve reproduced the release here. See if you can spot any issues with the release – I’ll give you the answers at the end.

Testosterone patch benefits women with low sexual desire
Allows women to judge efficacy of treatment for themselves

Cleveland, Ohio – August 14, 2007 Novel research published in the current issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine supports the claim that women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder or HSDD (persistent or recurrent deficiency and/or absence of sexual fanatasies/thoughts, and/or desire for, or receptivity to, sexual activity, which causes personal distress) show noted improvement in sexual desire and sexual function following low dose testosterone treatment.

Two randomized double-blind, placebo controlled trials in surgically postmenopausal (uterus and ovaries removed) women with HSDD demonstrated that transdermal testosterone patch treatment resulted in significant improvements in the frequency of satisfying sexual activity and sexual desire, as well as a decrease in sexual distress.

A total of 132 participants from the 2 trials were interviewed after a 6-month treatment period regarding their experience with the treatment. Results revealed a significant increase in frequency of satisfying sexual activity and sexual desire based on women experiencing the treatment as beneficial. Those women had an average increase in sexual activity of 4.4times per 4 weeks. In contrast, women who did not experience a benefit had only a 0.5 increase in activity per 4 weeks.

More women on testosterone experienced a meaningful benefit (52 percent vs. 31 percent) and, in fact, the odds of experiencing a meaningful benefit on testosterone were 2.4 times greater than that of placebo, says Sheryl Kingsberg, principal author of the study. Since the women were also able to judge for themselves whether or not the treatment was beneficial, those who experienced benefit were interested in continuing treatment.

These findings not only confirm the clinical effectiveness of transdermal testosterone, but provide benchmarks for the degree of improvement in sexual function that all future therapies for this disorder should try to attain, says Jan Shifren, co-author of the study.

“This is an especially relevant clinical study in the field of sexual medicine,” said Dr. Irwin Goldstein, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine. “These important data reinforce the positive value that treatment with the low dose testosterone patch can bring to the quality-of-life of surgically post-menopausal women with HSDD.”

The manuscript is published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Media who wish to receive a PDF of the article may contact medicalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net.

Dr. Sheryl Kingsberg is an Associate Professor and Chief, Division of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at MacDonald Women’s Hospital, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Dr. Jan Shifren is Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

Dr. Irwin Goldstein is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine; Director, Sexual Medicine at Alvarado Hospital, San Diego, California; Director, San Diego Sexual Medicine, San Diego, California; and Clinical Professor of Surgery, University of California, San Diego.

Drs. Kingsberg, Shifren and Goldstein are available for questions and interviews. To arrange for a telephone interview, please contact medicalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net.

The Journal of Sexual Medicine publishes multidisciplinary basic science and clinical research to define and understand the scientific basis of male and female sexual function and dysfunction. As the official journal of the International Society for Sexual Medicine, the five regional societies which are affiliated with it and the International Society for the Study of Women s Sexual Health, it provides healthcare professionals in sexual medicine with essential educational content and promotes the exchange of scientific information generated from basic science and clinical research.
For more information please visit www.blackwell-synergy.com/loi/jsm.

The International Society for Sexual Medicine (ISSM) was founded in 1982 for the purpose of promoting, throughout the international scientific community, research and knowledge in sexual medicine, considered as the subspeciality area of medicine that embraces the study, diagnosis and treatment of the sexual health concerns of men and women. The society has over 2700 members worldwide, with five regional societies that are affiliated with ISSM: the Africa Gulf Society for Sexual Medicine, Asia Pacific Society for Sexual Medicine, European Society for Sexual Medicine, Latin American Society for Sexual Medicine, and Sexual Medicine Society of North America. For more information please visit For more information please visit http://www.issm.info.

Okay, so that all looks fine – yes? It’s an impressively long release with lots of important sounding researchers and some clinical findings. Easy perhaps not to see the finer detail. So in case you didn’t spot it, here they are.

Was there any conflict of interest in this research?

Yes, but you wouldn’t know it from the press release. The research was funded by Proctor and Gamble who make the testosterone patches being tested in this study. Nothing inherently wrong with this, since drug companies fund research all the time. However it is remiss of the journal not to mention in its press release that a. the research was funded by Proctor and Gamble and b. 3 of the authors of this research are full time employees of the company. Clearly that creates a conflict of interest in how the research was both conducted and is likely to be reported (as we can see just from this press release and omission of key information).

Moreover if you read the whole paper you’ll notice one of the authors (who also is paid for by the funders of the research) is the editor of the journal concerned. This is not in itself a problem but it does beg questions about the independence of research being published in the journal – and being press released.

Does this press release convey a clear message?

Not really. In the title and first paragraph the release implies the research is about all women. However when you get to the second paragraph you’ll realise that it’s really only talking about women who are surgically postmenopausal (have had their ovaries and uterus removed). It would be wrong to imply that all women show improvement in sexual desire and functioning after taking testosterone.

Would all sex researchers agree with the way this study was conducted?
No they wouldn’t. Previous concerns have been expressed about similar studies by the same authors and where they have used measures to test sexual functioning they have been unwilling to share those outcomes or indicate how they have been validated. In the current paper there are mentions of the measures of sexual functioning being validated yet the references section shows that the research for two of the outcomes has only been presented at a conference not published in a peer reviewed journal. That means that an independent audience of scientists haven’t agreed the measures designed for this research work as claimed and they’ve not been available for wider use and testing. Some sex researchers might argue this is an interesting study, others would probably claim it’s more of an advert for a pharmaceutical company.

If you were on your toes as a journalist you could easily find out this information by a close reading of the press release (particularly looking for what’s not said as well as what is said) and following up by reading the actual paper.

Now that can take you time, so if you’re a journalist who’s on a tight deadline here’s how to get to the bottom of a release like this in double quick time.

- Check where the release is coming from
- See if it reveals who funded the research
- Identify if any of the authors have links to companies or organisations that might compromise the integrity fo the data
- Read the original research, not just the press release
AND/OR
- Ask another scientist specialising in the area of the paper you’re reporting on to answer the above questions for you and give you their opinion on the quality of the data (in particular ask them to provide evidence for the quality of the research you’re reporting on and whether it is in line with other current research). Make sure you also check with them if they’ve any conflict of interest (for example mine in relation to this research is I’m skeptical of it’s true purpose and I do have a problem with the objectivity of pharmaceutically funded research).

For all journalists working in health/science this form of fact checking should be second nature. However, many who cover sex related stories are not from a health/science background and will not be trained to critically evaluate a press release or know how to read a paper. If you’d like more help on how to do so there are some useful resources I’ve archived in my section for journalists, and I’m always more than happy to help you unpack both press releases and academic papers – all you have to do is ask.

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