Medical News: What’s the Truth?

Health Alert 77

You know you can’t believe everything you hear. This is certainly true with medical news. So how can you tell if reported new medical information is really proven? Today I am going to share with you the ticks I use to sort through medical reporting.

Publishers print an astounding 6000 pages of new medical information every day. Newspaper, television and magazine reporters and editors then sort through pieces of these medical studies. They look for a headline that will grab your attention.

The result is a continual stream of catchy and controversial headlines. Each new report seems to contradict last week’s news. One of the most common questions my patients ask me is “How do I know which article to believe?”

* Weeding Through the Rubbish *

I developed a system to respond to some of my most inquisitive patients. Like Rena for example. She is a fifty-something attorney. She’s well educated and very healthy. But on her first few visits, she brought me stacks of papers. She had photocopied every magazine, journal, and newspaper article that had anything to do with health.

She brought the articles to me in hopes that I would sort through them and pinpoint the “genuine” articles. She told me that she just wants the most accurate and current information available. But she couldn’t decipher the fluff from valid news.

To help my patients, and now you, I’ve come up with an approach that will help you to make sense of medical news.

1. Go to the primary source. The majority of health news is “secondary” reporting. They tell you the result of a new scientific study reported somewhere else. But the reporter doesn’t always interpret the study correctly. Go to the primary source. Most reporters list the report title and the publishing journal at the end of the article.

You can access journals through the library or on the internet. Most journals have websites that allow you to read a summary of every study. Just type the journal name in the search engine.

2. Consider the source. This is the most important step. Not all scientific studies are equally. You should ask some key questions, as you are reading research.

• Is the journal that published the study reputable? Have you ever heard of the journal? Check to see how long the journal has been around and what type of studies it publishes.

• Is the sample size large enough to reduce chance? The probability of chance is always a factor in study results. The larger the sample size, the better.

• Is the study randomized, double-blinded, and controlled? The term blinded means that the patient is unaware if they are receiving the therapy to be tested or a non-active placebo. Double blinded means that the doctor or researcher also doesn’t know until the study is finished. The more random and controlled a study is, the more probable that it is accurate.

• Are the authors of the study qualified? The authors and most of their qualifications appear just after the title of most studies.

3. Ask for the interpretation of your doctor. His medical school training included how to interpret the validity of scientific studies. And his medical background can provide a perspective that you don’t have.

4. Compile multiple results. Never base any medical decision on the results of one study. Instead, look at all of the studies pertaining to your interest. One of my favorite websites contains stores of research collections. It is reliable and easy to use. You can access PubMed at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed.

Al Sears MD