Figuring Out Health News
Jordan was gathering information for a research project on teens and suicide. She came across a news article about how some antidepressants increase the chances of suicidal thinking and behavior in kids and teens. Jordan was confused. How could a medicine that was supposed to help kids with depression actually make them feel worse? She was also worried because her sister was taking an antidepressant. After Jordan did some of her own research and looked into the issue further, though, she discovered things that set her mind at ease.
Often, news reports on health and medicine can be confusing — and sometimes they can be downright scary. How do you know what is important and accurate?
A Study — or Just a Story?
Large newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and radio stations often have medical reporters on staff to cover developments in health and medicine. Their job is to report complicated scientific information in a way that’s easy for regular people to understand. Many health stories are accurate and balanced. But not all are. Sometimes, reporters try to quickly cram information into a short news story, and they may oversimplify the information. What you see may not be the whole picture.
To catch a viewer’s attention, news reports sometimes make dramatic claims. In addition, medical news reports often focus on people’s personal stories, not scientific studies. Personal stories are interesting, but often they don’t prove anything about health or treatments in general. It takes a well-done study to do that. And sometimes these studies just aren’t dramatic or exciting enough to make the news.
Questions to Consider
When you hear about a new medical development, the first question to ask yourself is whether the news is based on a scientific study. Knowing there’s a study behind the news is only the first step, though. How the study was done (and who did it) matters too.
Was the Study Done in People?
A lot of medical research is done in the laboratory or in lab animals, not in people — at least, not at first. Lab studies help scientists figure out whether a drug looks promising, how it works, and whether there might be side effects. But what happens in a laboratory does not necessarily work the same in people. These studies are often a beginning — but they’re usually not the end of the story.
When watching or reading a news report about a new drug or treatment, see if it tells you whether the findings involved animals or people. It might not — so you’ll have to do some sleuthing on your own to get the information.
Who Was in the Study?
Even if a study was done in people, it may not apply to you. For instance, findings from studies involving only adults may not be true for teens. Results of all-male studies may not apply to women. Research studies usually list who took part — their sex, age, and other characteristics. Are these people like you?
In addition to who is in a study, you’ll also need to keep in mind how many people took part in it. The more people in the study, the more likely it is that the study’s findings will hold true for the whole population. Sometimes a study’s results are announced with a big splash and then it turns out that the study only involved a few people. When researchers do the same study using the hundreds or thousands of people necessary to get really accurate (or “significant”) results, those results might be different.
It’s also important for the study to follow patients long enough to be sure that a treatment really works, and that additional or more serious side effects don’t develop over time.
How Was the Study Designed?
There are lots of ways researchers look into new treatments and information that can help people stay healthier. Sometimes they look back at people’s medical records or ask them questions to find out what might have put them at more (or less) risk for a health condition. Those studies, called retrospective studies, can provide useful clues, but they’re only as reliable as a person’s memory or the accuracy of medical records.
Prospective studies are usually better. They look forward, not backward. The best of these studies follow thousands of people long enough to see whether the things they do — like diet and exercise — have a good or bad effect on their health.
For new drugs or treatments, randomized, controlled clinical trials are the best way for deciding whether a treatment works. In this kind of research, some of the participants get the drug, vitamin, or other therapy being tested. Others get what is called a placebo (a fake treatment or sugar pill that contains no medicine at all). In this type of study, the patients are “blinded” — they don’t know who is getting the treatment and who is getting the placebo until the trial is over. That way, their response to the drug or placebo can’t be influenced by whether they think they have been taking the real drug or not. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the researchers know which patients have taken the drug or the placebo until the study is over.
It’s rare for one study to be the final word. Medical knowledge comes from many studies done over time — and frequently there are contradictions along the way. Often, different studies of a particular treatment or condition, all done properly, can still have different (or even completely opposite) results.
Also, the news media (and even researchers themselves!) are more likely to report the findings of a study if that study shows results that are different from what is thought to be true. For example, the media are much more likely to do a story about a study that shows that eating a particular type of food may help prevent cancer. But other studies may show that eating that food doesn’t really make much difference.
The scientific community can take into account all the different studies and decide that eating the food might not really help a person avoid cancer. But to the regular person who just hears about one study through the news, that food suddenly becomes a cancer-fighting miracle.
Where Do Reporters Get Their Stories?
Sometimes, reporters get their news stories by following what is published in medical journals. The best medical and scientific journals — like The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, Science, and Nature — carefully review studies before publishing them so the information is trustworthy.
These publications are written for the scientific community, and the language in them can be hard for people who aren’t doctors or scientists to understand. News reporters who get their information from scientific journals might do a good job of explaining the study and what it means — but not always.
Some reporters don’t always wait until something is published before reporting it as news. Sometimes reporters hear information from researchers before a study has even been published and they want to bring it to the public’s attention quickly. Without a published study, though, a reporter may not have all the facts.
So how do you get closer to the truth?
Doing Your Own Research
You can get additional information about a news report on the Internet. Put keywords from the news report into a search engine and see what comes up. The results will give you lots of different perspectives — particularly if the issue is big news — so you’re not relying on just one news report for the facts. You’ll need to screen what you see, though. Many of the sites that show up in search results may not have the most accurate and up-to-date information.
On commercial websites (sites with URLs that end in .com), look to see if the site has advertising. If it does, it may be biased in favor of the advertiser. Of course, having advertising on a site doesn’t necessarily mean it is biased. But if you’re going to be a good “information consumer,” you need to take that possibility into account.
Also check to see whether a doctor or other medical expert has reviewed the information you’re reading, and whether the date on the information is recent.
The websites of government health agencies — such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — usually give accurate and unbiased information. Established medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, and associations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, are other good sources.
The best way to get a full understanding of medical news is to ask someone like a doctor or science teacher for help in figuring out what it all means.
Jordan talked to her science teacher about the antidepressant story. She helped Jordan understand that certain antidepressants (like the one Jordan’s sister was taking) are OK for teens. She also helped her discover that the study results didn’t mean all the teens in the study committed suicide while on the medication. In fact, in this study, none of the patients on the medication committed suicide. Instead, some reported thinking about suicide more. Jordan also learned about how important it is for teens on antidepressants to see their doctors regularly so their medications can be monitored and adjusted.
Reading or watching medical news isn’t a substitute for seeing a doctor. Trying to diagnose yourself or changing or stopping your medicine based on something you’ve read or heard can be dangerous. News reports often focus only on the positive and don’t mention the downsides, or side effects, of a medication or other treatment. Or they may report a dramatic or scary side effect of a medication that is really very rare, or fail to mention the large number of patients who might get very sick if they didn’t take the drug. Your doctor can help you weigh the benefits and risks.
As Jordan discovered, understanding what’s behind medical news can take away worry and concern. And knowing more can help you ask good questions about your own health when you see your doctor.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2012