Tips for evaluating medical news

Tips for Evaluating Medical News

It seems as though you can't pick up the newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing some mention of an "exciting new medical breakthrough." To make sense of all that's new in medicine, you need to look beyond the headlines to the research itself. Here are a few tips to help you sift through the information and decide what's really important. 

Seek out the source

Much of the health news you hear is culled from studies originally published in journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association or The New England Journal of Medicine . Professional and scientific journals are a reliable source of information because study results have undergone peer review, a process that allows physicians and other professionals, including statisticians, to review the studies prior to publication. This helps ensure that the rules of good scientific research were followed.

When you hear a report of a medical study of interest to you, see if you can locate the original article. Your local library and the Internet are good sources of information. 

Ask the right questions

When reading up on medical research, ask yourself the following questions:
How big was the study and what was the time frame? Studies involving large numbers of people over many years offer more credible results than those withstudies small sample sizes that last only a few months.
  • What type of study was it? Epidemiologic studies evaluate large groups of people to determine if certain habits lead to disease. These studies may find a correlation between a behavior (like drinking coffee) and a health problem (like heart disease), but they do not prove a direct link (like drinking coffee causes heart disease).
Retrospective , which are based on a review of medical records or patient recollections are less reliable than prospective studies, which begin at the present time and follow participants through the years.

Clinical trials are controlled studies where researchers test a drug or medical device. Often, one group of participants takes the medication being studied while another group takes a placebo. Double-blind studies take this a step further and are designed so that neither researchers nor study participants know who is receiving the placebo.
  • Was the study done on humans? Results generated by animal studies are generally considered preliminary and do not necessarily translate to humans.
  • Who sponsored the study? Research paid for by a company or industry that may gain financially from study results should be scrutinized carefully.

Check with your physician

Don't leave your family doctor out of the picture when you have questions about what's new in medicine. Your physician not only has access to the latest in medical research, but also to essential information about your personal medical history.

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