How to evaluate health-related research

Did you ever hear about the possibility that some childhood vaccines might cause autism? This claim was based on a study that was published in The Lancet – a reliable British medical journal – in 1998. Unfortunately, it took until 2010 before The Lancet finally removed the study from the medical literature, saying that the author’s results were based on unethical research practices and incorrect information.

The damage, though, may have already been done: As news about this study spread after 1998, many parents started questioning whether or not children’s vaccines were safe. Some parents refused vaccinations for their children altogether – even though 20 or more studies published since 1998 showed that the original report was wrong. Unfortunately, those newer reports never got as much “press exposure” as they deserved. In the minds of many, a link between autism and vaccines had been firmly set – even though it was possibly wrong.

Sorting through the hype

So how can you figure out what’s really accurate when it comes to health information?

There are many ways to get health-related information. A good place to start is with your health care provider, who is likely to be your most trusted source for your questions. But in between visits, you’ll likely hear a lot of other stories about “groundbreaking” medical research. Some of these reports will be true, and a few of them may be biased. Many may fall somewhere between fact and fiction. You’ll need to sort through the hype to find the truth. How do you do it?

Whether your health information comes from the TV news, the radio, a newspaper, or the Internet, the following guidelines should help:

Identify the source

    • Which group (or person) is making the claim? Does it come from a respected health organization like a university, academic medical center, or the National Institutes of Health?

 

    • If an individual is sending out the information instead, is that person trained in the health sciences? Is he/she an expert in the field?

 

    • If the information is posted on a health-related website, is there a Health on the Net (HON) logo?An up-to-date HON logo should give some evidence that this is a good health information resource.

 

    • Who paid for the research to be done? Pharmaceutical companies often provide money to independent researchers to study new medications. The researchers should disclose the funding source. Researchers must report if they have a commercial interest in the outcome of the research. It’s important to figure out if they are they trying to sell something as part of the information being provided.

 

  • Has the research been published initially in a reputable journal devoted to research in the specific area of interest for you?

Is it an “urban legend”?

Many health claims are really fake news stories that have spread like a virus over the Internet. Find out if the material is real or not by checking “urban legend” websites like:

If the information comes from a research study, try to find the whole report

Health-related research can often be a slow process. It may take years to reach a clear conclusion about the effectiveness of a particular treatment or procedure. Sometimes the news media will report early findings, or exaggerate or oversimplify research results, leading to contradictions or confusion. The opposite may also hold true. Because health-related knowledge is increasing at an extremely rapid rate and treatments are constantly being evaluated and improved, what may be true now may not be true three months from now.

Good questions to keep in mind are:

  • How many people did the study include?
  • What was the age and gender of the research subjects?
  • How long did the study last?
  • Have other researchers had the same findings?
  • Is there a conflict of interest or bias on the part of the author?

Just because a report is about your pain condition, it may not apply to you

For example, heath-related research that was done on men doesn’t always apply to women. And research that’s done with adults could have totally different results if children are involved. In the same way, some new medications may work well for one type of pain condition, but not others.

    • Look for research that tests a large number of people who are like you.

 

    • Keep in mind: A report about one person’s experience with a treatment doesn’t give enough information to change your own treatment plan.

 

  • Speak with your health care provider about any information you discover.

Why might you sometimes find contradictory information in research reports?

Health-related news stories frequently report conflicting findings – one saying that such-and-such is good for you, while another says the same thing may be of no help, or even harmful. Contradictory findings can leave even the most informed person with pain frustrated and confused. If you find yourself confused by information you find, be sure to discuss it with your provider. But remember, providers and scientists may not agree about some issues. Even when the research in question is scientifically sound, there may be conflicting results or differences of opinion.

Numbers don’t lie, but they may not tell the whole story

You might read that 5% of all people with your particular pain type don’t respond to treatment. This statistic could seem very scary. Flip the information around though and it has a different feel – 95% of all people with this pain respond to treatment.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

We’ve all seen articles or websites for products that guarantee “100% success, based on research results” Learn more about these claims and talk to your health care provider about them before spending any money.

Remember, don’t make snap treatment decisions based on a single news story, and always look for more information. Your health is too important to take every reported medical claim at face value, and your health care provider is another set of ears and eyes to help determine what make sense and what does not.

Resources

MedlinePlus
http://medlineplus.gov (search on “understanding medical research”)

patientINFORM.org
http://www.patientinform.org (click on “understanding and access” / “understanding medical research”

National Institute on Aging
http://www.nia.nih.gov (search on “understanding risk”)

Sage Publications: How to read a research study
http://www.sagepub.com/bjohnsonstudy/howtoarticle.htm