Medical practice

The Behind the Headlines' Top Five of Top Fives

As we move towards the end of the year, like all news sources, we fall back on that classic space filler – the list story. So without further ado, here is the official Behind the Headlines’ Top Five of Top Fives stories of the year.

The top five ‘Good work team!’ stories of the year

We can often get bogged down in pointing out dodgy sub-group analyses, spurious extrapolations of samples sizes containing just four men and a dog and RCTs pointing out the benefits of chocolate on blood pressure that turned out to be funded by a chocolate-making conglomerate. So it's important not to lose sight of the fact that there are many hard-working researchers, producing invaluable work, framed in the best traditions of evidence-based medicine, that does make the world a better place.

Here’s our top five of the year:

Just a single cigarette a day 'linked' to sudden death

These researchers were in it for the long-haul. Over 100,000 women followed over the course of 30 years showed us that there is no such thing as a healthy level of smoking, however the tobacco companies try to spin their brands.

Sunbeds 'killing hundreds each year'

This impressive study, involving thousands of people across Europe, provided conclusive evidence that the tanning industry (worth billions) is causing hundreds of preventable deaths every year – all in the name of vanity. Maybe something should be done?

If 'drugs don’t work' for depression, CBT may

A useful piece of research, produced by a large team of experts, which provided compelling evidence of the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in treating depression. CBT is inexpensive, has minimal side-effects, and it works. What’s not to love?

Personalised cancer drug hope

International medical collaboration at its finest. Over 50 geneticists working across the globe, coming together to produce a new “encyclopaedia” detailing how hundreds of different cancer cells respond to anti-cancer agents, with the hope it could lead to personalised cancer treatments.

Half of medical reporting 'is subject to spin' 

Unlike some types of complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs), practitioners of evidence-based medicine are more than willing to discuss its flaws and air their dirty washing in public. This intriguing piece of research highlights PR spin, arguably distorting the evidence, which is occurring at all levels – from research teams, to university public relations departments, to mainstream journalists.

The top five ‘Don’t wait up for that call from Stockholm’ stories

All medical research is valuable. It's just that some of it is less valuable than others. And to be honest, we cannot see any of the researchers involved in the following studies picking up the Nobel Prize for Medicine anytime soon.

Stressed men 'crave curvier women' 

While this is a well-conducted study, we are unclear what pratical application the information that stressed-out men pefer the larger lady, could have.

'A glance may show if someone is gay'

A US study made the case that ‘gaydar’ existed. But only in the lab conditions. And for women. And it only worked 65% of the time.

People 'more likely to die on their birthday'

A Swiss study found that people were 14% more likely to die on their birthdays. So we wouldn’t recommend booking your next birthday bash in Zurich.

Jaw-dropping moments ‘make people nicer’

Californian researchers (who else) found that people exposed to a 60-second advert, containing supposedly 'awe-inspiring' imagery, were slightly more likely to score higher on a niceness survey (but not to donate more money to charity).

Possibly we are jaded – we work in London so our access to awe-inspiring moments is limited.

The top five ‘Call that reporting?’ stories

We look at a lot of health journalism. Some of it excellent, some of it good, some of it downright terrible. Here are our top five examples of the latter:

'Designer vagina' ops for kids on the NHS?

‘Girls as young as nine are asking for vaginal cosmetic surgery on the NHS – driven by a trend in “pornstar chic”,' Metro has reported. An entirely baseless claim with no evidence to support it.

'NICE nanny state' parking cost claims are untrue

“Raise cost of parking to force motorists to walk! Nanny watchdog’s plan to get Britain fit” the Daily Mail thundered about NICE guidelines on promoting walking and cycling. Except, NICE only made a suggestion about parking charges and have no legal powers to raise the charges.

'Oral sex helps women fight depression' claim

“Oral sex is good for women’s health and helps fight depression,” was the Daily Mail’s lurid headline. Except the ‘news’ is based on a 10-year-old study looking at condom use not oral sex.

iPad use and depression link questioned

Using an iPad at night 'could trigger depression', The Daily Telegraph has reported on a study that, er, did not involve iPads, or, er, humans.

Eating egg yolks as 'bad as smoking'

"Eating egg yolks is as bad as smoking in speeding up coronary heart disease," the Daily Mail says – possibly, but you are only at any risk in the fairly unlikely event you eat more than 200 egg yolks a year.

The top five ‘science is cool’ stories

Scientists are cool and the science they practice is even cooler. Here are our five coolest stories of the year:

'Spray-on-skin' treatment for leg ulcers

Skin from a can – sweet.

'Bionic eye' implant restores men's sight

Exciting, proof-of-concept work that may lead to more wide-ranging treatments for vision loss.

Humans have 'super spidey sense' for danger claim 

Research suggesting humans may have a superhero-like sixth-sense for danger.

Robotic legs hope

Pioneering work in robotics that may eventually transform care for amputees.

Endangered species found in Chinese medicines 

Using clever DNA detective work, an Australian researcher claimed that many Chinese medicines contained substances taken from endangered species.

And finally, five burning questions of the year

Does the G-spot exist? – (not sure)

Should we really fear 'new flesh-eating bacteria'?* *– (no)

Is ice cream really 'addictive like drugs'? – (no)

Is 'cuddle chemical' really the new Viagra? – (without Phase 3 trials, nobody has the faintest idea)

Have scientists learned to read minds? – (no)

NHS Attribution