From good science to misinformation

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Good research often falls victim to misinterpretation or distortion: This shows a recently in The Lancet published article (Sept, 2018, Didier Pittet et al.). The authors refer to a series of articles (The Guardian, Reuters et al.) that misinterpreted a recently in Science published study  (Aug, 2018, Sacha J. Pidot et al.).
What happened? The study authors compared older and newer E faecium isolates (obtained between 1997 and 2015) and their tolerance to a 23% alcohol solution, and found that some newer strains were more tolerant to alcohol.
However, hospital alcohol-based handrub formulations contain 60–90% alcohol and there is no evidence of resistance at these concentrations, thus tolerance to a 23% alcohol solution is not clinically relevant.
Alcohol-based handrub is the most effective agent available for hand hygiene and is a key element in infection prevention, the authors of the article (The Lancet) emphasize: As experts in hand hygiene, we feel these misinterpretations could lower health-care worker compliance with hand hygiene practices and put patients at risk.
This example shows how quickly study analyses can be mischaracterized, and unfortunately reflects a well-known phenomenon of our time: To induce a sensation to get attention.
A little bit of sensation can cause immense damage. Misinterpreted informations quickly stick in people’s mind, and it often takes a long time until they lose their importance.
What happened here is a good reminder for me as a medicine journalist not only to read articles attentively, but (if possible) to deal with their sources.

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Carola Timmel is journalist for print and radio and professional speaker. Her focus lies on the topic Medicine & Health.

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