Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

USPSTF takes another tack on announcing screening guidelines, this time on cervical cancer

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Here’s an announcement from this week that marks an unusual move by a government-backed group that offers guidelines on various tests:

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) will publish its final recommendations on screening for cervical cancer in the Annals of Internal Medicine and on their website on Wednesday, March 14th.

This announcement is currently public information.

The announcement then details how reporters can obtain embargoed copies of a USPSTF press release on the new guidelines, and the recommendations themselves.

I won’t be breaking the embargo by saying that this involves — wait for it — women. And the USPSTF published a draft version of the guidelines for public comment in October.

That move, however, was a response to the difficulties the USPSTF has had with getting its messages out to the public without igniting firestorms of controversy — or even death threats, as my Reuters colleague Alina Selyukh reported last December. As I reported in mid-2010:

In the past, they simply released final versions of their recommendations, but they have been quietly working on ways to release drafts for public comment, before the guidelines were final.

For one month, the draft will be available for comment on the group’s website here. Based on the feedback, the group may change its recommendations.

“We’ve decided that since the miscommunication and the reaction to the breast cancer screening guidelines, that we wanted to accelerate the process,” Calonge said, referring to mammography recommendations released last November that were met with controversy.

The USPSTF has also brought in external help, in the form of major health care PR player Edelman. Although their announcement this week didn’t refer to her employer, the person handling calls on the USPSTF’s behalf is Edelman’s Ana Fullmer.

I asked Fullmer about this week’s announcement:

We just wanted to give people a heads-up. We get a lot of questions about when something will be available.

Some of those questions have in fact been from me, because the USPSTF would publish a review — in the Annals of Internal Medicine — of evidence that didn’t say what they’d be recommending, and not say when the recommendations themselves were coming out. Fullmer said the agency had run the new plan by the journal, who said it was fine.

Perhaps this is the new trend. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, tweeted this, for example, early last month:

We are publishing a ridiculously large amount on China tomorrow. Some encouraging news, but warnings too. An honest discussion on organs…

That sort of tweet from me or another journalist who had agreed to The Lancet’s embargo might have been considered a break at one point. And another journal might still consider it one.

I’m not sure how I feel about this potential new development in Embargo Land. On the one hand, it allows journals and agencies to control the flow of information even more, and gin up interest in the findings, diverting attention from other material. On the other, there’s a certain amount of transparency to it.

I’ll be curious to see what Embargo Watch readers think. But I’ll also be curious to see whether this embargo holds. It may very well on the cervical cancer screening guidelines, but I’m guessing if there’s another breast or prostate cancer announcement handled this way, it won’t.

Written by Ivan Oransky

March 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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