I’m a bit late on this with only a few excuses. The birth of a new grandson. Computer problems. Living in the Minneapolis area and being focused on the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests.
CBS 60 Minutes broadcast a story it called, “The Promise of Plasma,” about a trial of convalescent plasma at just one medical center in New Jersey.
You’re going to hear a lot about convalescent plasma because the approach makes intuitive sense. But science needs to prove that things work. Intuition is not sufficient. And the 60 Minutes story did a pretty weak job of establishing the difference. (The Mayo Clinic explains convalescent plasma on its website.)
Here are some of the things that could have been improved in the 60 Minutes story.
CBS quoted a researcher who is helping to lead the New Jersey hospital’s convalescent plasma trial. This is how the story ended.
CBS’ Bill Whitaker: Based on what you have seen so far, what does your gut tell you?
David Perlin, researcher: My gut says that this is going to work. The initial response of the patients is incredibly encouraging. But as a scientist, I’m trained to be cautious. And so right now this is our best approach, we are going to take it, we’ll be aggressive with it but we’ll see how patients respond.
Benjamin Mazer, MD, a physician who is very active on social media, tweeted:
If you’re a doctor who goes on TV to say that convalescent plasma for COVID19 still needs more evidence but you’ve seen great outcomes in the patients you gave it to…you know exactly what you’re doing.
The public is going to hear “this probably works.”
— Benjamin Mazer (@BenMazer) June 1, 2020
Another physician joined Mazer with pointed skepticism:
When the expected recovery rate is 98% no one can confidently say they “see” a difference. pic.twitter.com/ru1P1fp4YQ
— Mark Hoofnagle (@MarkHoofnagle) June 1, 2020
So, even though researcher Perlin made an attempt to remind himself to be cautious, he went ahead and called the experiment “our best approach.” Well you can’t say that it’s the best approach because you don’t know that. That is why you’re doing the trial. And CBS should have addressed that. They didn’t, and that’s the take home message they ended with.
An RN/paramedic on Twitter reflected on the impact of stories like this on viewers:
We have criticized 60 Minutes in the past. Just two examples:
As always, when we criticize, we try to do so constructively, pointing to ways in which a story could have been improved – often with little effort. We hope 60 Minutes pays attention.