The hyping of 'miracle cures' and 'medical breakthroughs' in the media is increasingly common, and quite disturbing. This cynical raising of false hopes among some of the most distressed people in our society is something which SIRC is seeking to address in its Code of Practice on Science and Health Communication. In this context the article in the Sunday Times Microchip allows paralysed man to walk again is an illustration of precisely why such a Code is required.
The journalists, Jonathan Leake and Wayne Bodkin, hail the microchip as a 'breakthrough' and a 'world first', bringing 'hope for hundreds of thousands of other paraplegics. Not until the penultimate paragraph, in a 15 paragraph article, was there any suggestion that there might be limits to the 'miracles' that the chip could work – a brief quote from Stephen Bradshaw of the Spinal Injuries Association who warned that 'there would be limits to what implants could achieve.'
The potential damage that this article might have caused was made clear the next morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. In a blunt response to the Sunday Times, Peter Mansell of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, had this to say:
"If I was a mum whose son broke his neck yesterday and I read that in the paper I might have a false expectation about where this is leading. My experience is that where people have [tried similar 'cures'] and tried to actually use the technology to help them they have found that at best it might have given their muscles some exercise so that they don't atrophy. But at worst what it has done has made them move away from getting on with their lives and having a good quality of life."
Peter Mansell went on to claim that the 'false hopes' raised by insensitive media reporting can move the agenda away from a concern with the quality of disabled people's lives and focus it instead on 'treatments' which may not work or benefit only a small minority of the disabled community.
Such potentially damaging effects of health-related reporting must be more fully appreciated by journalists. The SIRC / RI Code urges journalists to make clear the likely limitations of treatments such as this in the first two paragraphs of the article so as to reduce the possibility that readers might be misled. For the Sunday Times to raise only one small caveat in paragraph 14, when clearly many experts have grave reservations about the microchip, is irresponsible in the extreme.