By Christine Moffa, MS, RN, AJN clinical editor
I came across this headline when I was looking for the latest news on the Internet. It certainly got my attention. I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, haven’t these soldiers been through enough, and now they might have HIV.” I took the bait and did what the editors of the article hoped I’d do—I clicked on the headline. Sure enough, it was not exactly accurate. Yes, there was a risk that these patients had been exposed to bloodborne pathogens due to the improper cleaning technique performed on dental instruments at a VA hospital, but there was no specific reason to think they actually had that illness. It reminds me of a cautionary tale by Peter Jacobi I came across a number of years ago that demonstrates how statistics can be manipulated by writers: “100% of those who were born in 1850 and ate carrots are now dead. So carrots obviously lead to . . . death.”
While there are worse ones out there, this is an example of how headlines are manipulated to get readers’ attention. Don’t get me wrong: proper cleaning of instruments is an integral part of patient safety and all patients should be able to trust the facility providing them treatment. But wouldn’t it be more responsible to say, “VA hospital may have exposed 1,800 veterans to infection,” since we don’t know which organisms were actually on the instruments at the time they were being used?