Five Year Myth

It’s an innocuous little phrase, a staple of health reporting, and probably the most misleading statement any scientist can utter or journalist write.  Its “within five years” and is the inevitable answer to the question “when will it be available?”. Type it into your favourite search engine and I’ll bet that the many of the hits will refer to some potential cancer cure or revolutionary treatment – (I tried it).

It seems a reasonable answer to a reasonable question.  Anyone reporting on a medical discovery will ask when patients are going to be able to get the benefits – it’s inevitably what the audience would like to know and a journalists job is to represent their readers.  Yet the only honest reply is “I don’t know” – putting a timescale on it is pure speculation.

Developing drugs is a complex, expensive, time consuming process.  For every one that makes it, thousands of potential pharmaceuticals fall by the wayside, some in the final stages of licensing just weeks before they’re due to become widely available. All of the “five year” treatments have to jump many hurdles before they make it to patients.  Statistically, most will fail.

So why say it?  Five years is a convenient sort of time, close enough to feel as if its really going to happen yet far enough away not to promise too much. Its also fits nicely with the cycle of research funding.

Researchers need funds to work.  Funding bodies, public or private, like to be seen to be paying for good research and like their name in the papers as a result. Some of the big spenders in British research actually require their grant holders to communicate their findings to the public. The best way to do this is via the media so researchers and journalists are getting ever closer.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is a very good thing and there should be even more of it.  But it leads to my little five year problem. Researchers have to talk to the media to fulfil the requirements of their funders, without which they would not be able to work. Journalists want to know when the wonder drug will be available and the answer “within five years” seems to satisfy.

But in fact it produces false hopes and a misleading view of research. Over the last 15 years I’ve reported on many potential treatments and have had letters and calls from sick people and their relatives desperate to know when they can get the medicine. I have to say it’s a long way away and may never happen; to predictable disappointment.  Its heartbreaking, and made worse by the perpetual view that a cure is just around the corner when in truth no-one can ever say.

In my view it is worse to produce false hopes than tell an unpalatable truth. What we need is honesty. An honest description of the unpredictability of research. The perhaps bitter reality that most potential cures will never live up to the expectations.

Every time I read “within five years” I cringe and think of the patients being set up for an almost inevitable fall. We should report the research, that’s crucial, but dump the five year myth. Instead make it clear that we can never say if, let alone when, the treatment will ever be available.

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his Blog

One comment


    January 17, 2007

    Well said. I worked in obesity/diabetes research for a long time, and I’ve lost count of the number of cures for obesity I’ve seen. None of them seem to suggest avoiding the pie shop.

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