Manufacturing controversy: CBC’s thermography story – who’s deceiving who?

By Darcy Fitzpatrick
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Posted on: Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

A few weeks ago in late November, CBC’s Here and Now presented an investigative report on thermography.

Sort of.

It wasn’t really about thermography. I mean, they didn’t look into thermography in any great detail. What they did instead was focus in on the only clinic in the province that offers thermographic breast cancer screening services, and did their level best to rake them over the coals for it.

I’m not going to spend any real time debating the potential merits of thermography here. But I will say, while the jury is still out on its usefulness here in Canada as a breast health screening tool, it has already been approved for such use and is regulated in several other developed nations, including the United States. The key thing about that is, thermography in the US can’t be used or advertised as the sole method for screening for breast cancer. It’s what is known as an adjunct service. In countries such as the US, thermography does not replace mammography, but it can be used to seek additional information about the health of a woman’s breasts.

You wouldn’t know that from watching CBC’s investigation, though. While they did feature two Canadian breast cancer experts who testified against thermography’s effectiveness, never was it mentioned that thermography has been approved for use in other parts of the world, including our neighbour to the south. If there’s one idea this investigative report really wanted to prime the viewer with, it’s that thermography doesn’t work. A bit selective with their facts, maybe, but this for me was not the most concerning aspect of this investigative report.

The report spends most of its time building a house of cards wherein they want you to believe that Avalon Laser Health Clinic is misleading patients about the intended use of thermography as a tool for breast cancer screening. The only problem is, they have no proof that this is actually taking place – because it isn’t. So instead, they go to great lengths assembling all the usual sites and sounds of a hard-hitting investigative report. There’s the ominous sounding score, the darkened lighting, the tinted camera effects, and the clincher: an undercover patient who goes into the clinic for a thermographic exam.

And uncovers nothing. But you wouldn’t think that prior to seeing the footage, when reporter Amy Stoodley tells the viewer, “They say it’s only additional information, but we wanted to be sure. So we sent our undercover agent to Avalon Laser Health to find out what actually happens.”

Several prolonged minutes and one entire commercial break later (the report is conveniently split into two segments), nothing happens.

The sting turns out to be a bust. Everything the patient was told is everything the clinic has always said in public, that they offer the service as additional information and that it is not a replacement for other breast exams – indeed, the undercover patient even signed a standard consent form stating as much. But the viewers at home never get to hear or see any of this – if it was caught on tape, they never bothered to include it in the report. Instead, we get a shaky camera with a tinted lens walking down a corridor and muffled voices going over mundane test results. It’s all sizzle and no substance. But we still walk away with the sense of something covert taking place. The undercover footage has served its purpose, at least from an editorial perspective – it leaves the viewer with the impression that something worth going undercover for is taking place here. When it isn’t.

Then there’s the video on the clinic’s website that the report compares to an online video in the US that was taken down by the FDA. The report refers to the FDA-offending video as a “similar video” that made “the same claims” as the clinic’s video. Only that isn’t entirely true. The video in the US taken down by the FDA was done so specifically because it made the claim that thermography could be used in place of mammography for a breast exam – which, as I explained earlier, is not allowed. The clinic’s video, on the other hand, actually states clearly in a slide that lasts for 35 seconds that a thermogram is not a replacement for a mammogram. Again, the CBC report doesn’t tell you this, and instead cherry picks images and text from the video out of context for maximum shock value.

They even went so far as to try and make the clinic’s owner, Clare Barry, appear to be lying about a statement she makes in the report that frequent mammograms can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. Her claim is indeed a well documented fact. However, when Miss Barry says this, the footage is digitally zoomed in again and again and again on her lips as she speaks the words. Then breast cancer expert Dr. Nancy Wadden is shown saying that this is “incorrect advice” and “false advertising”. What exactly she’s referring to is unclear, but the connection the audience is being asked to make is that she’s responding to Miss Barry’s claim – a claim that is indeed factual and true.

Dr. Wadden, who created our province’s breast screening program, claims at one point that thermography patients are “clogging up” her ultrasound and mammogram list. But what we aren’t told is that in the past two and a half years just seven thermography patients have been sent for further breast screening. Again, it’s all about what they’re not telling you.

What this investigative report really lacks is a smoking gun. There’s no sign of anyone from Avalon Laser Health Clinic telling a patient, undercover or otherwise, that thermography is a replacement for mammography – because they don’t do that, and are explicit in telling their patients about the limits of thermography. There’s no interview with any women who were told by the clinic that thermography is a replacement for mammography – because no such woman exists. There’s nothing to really pin on anyone here, aside from some claims made by a couple of Canadian cancer experts that thermography doesn’t work, which contradicts the established practices of other developed nations, including the United States.

Without anything substantial to give this story any real purpose, what we instead get is a lot of smoke and mirrors, ample suggestion and even some clever misdirection. The report is so well put together that by the end it’s almost impossible to tell that nothing has come of it. Unless you count the damage it’s done.

This report has seriously damaged the entire reputation of Avalon Laser Health Clinic, its staff and its services, where thermography makes up less than one half of a percent of their business. By offering thermography as a breast screening service, Avalon Laser Health Clinic was following in a long line of other clinics across Canada, and clinics around the world where thermography has already been approved and regulated for use. Unfortunately for women in Canada, this country has yet to catch up with the rest of the world. And CBC’s Here and Now report seized on that opportunity to attack Avalon Laser Health Clinic for essentially trying to give women more choice in their approach to monitoring the health of their breasts.

Now Avalon Laser Health Clinic, its owner, Clare Barry, and its many staff are suffering for it, both financially and emotionally. As Miss Barry explained to me over e-mail, this experience has shattered her.

I urge anyone who saw this report when it originally aired to watch it again online and decide for yourself who is really doing the deceiving here. The CBC would like you to believe it’s the subject in front of the lens, Avalon Laser Health Clinic, but it should be clear to anyone after a second viewing that the real deception is taking place behind the lens at the CBC.

You can view the video online by clicking here.

I hope you’ll agree that CBC’s Here and Now owe Avalon Laser Health Clinic a heartfelt apology and a highly visible, well advertised retraction for the false claims and suggestions they made against them in their report.

One final note: Throughout the day yesterday I tried getting a response from the CBC about some of my concerns with their investigative report, but I got stonewalled. I contacted the investigation’s reporter, Amy Stoodley, with a list of questions I was hoping to have answered for inclusion in this piece, but was eventually told that she was not permitted to comment on the story – though she did say she was happy with the story’s outcome. After further inquiry she suggested I try Peter Gullage, Executive Director of CBC News, NL, whom I contacted with the same list of questions. I received a curt reply from Mr. Gullage, asking who I was and who I wrote for. I explained myself fully, and followed up with another inquiry before the end of the day, but I never heard back from him.

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