Making Sense of Medical News
What to Believe?
- Attention, parents: TV viewing can be harmful to kids!
- Attention, parents: TV viewing is not harmful to your kids!
Which is right? Depending on which story you came across, either is correct — at least for a time. Researchers reported that young kids who watched a lot of television were prone to attention problems at school. But then 2 years later another study discounted that finding, concluding that kids with attention issues may, for a variety of reasons, simply watch more TV.
These conflicting headlines are just one example of how baffling medical news can be. What one study claims to be true may soon be disputed by another study. And with so many studies in the news and on the Internet, how do you know what’s important, accurate, and relevant to your family’s health?
The good news is you don’t have to be a doctor or a scientist to sort it all out. There are some simple ways to evaluate what medical news means to your family. Then you can talk with your doctor about whether the news is relevant or appropriate as you make decisions about your child’s health.
Medical Research vs. News Stories
There are some points to consider when reading or listening to a report on a health topic to help you decide whether to trust it and whether it applies to your family.
It takes a solid study to prove something substantial about health or treatments. And usually it takes years of many solid studies to confirm conclusions that doctors can stand behind in making decisions about health care for kids.
When you hear about a new medical development, the first questions to ask are: “Is it based on a scientific study?” and “What have the other studies of this issue shown?”
Many medical news reports rely on anecdotes — stories of people’s experiences with a particular problem or treatment — rather than on documented findings.
Reporters often use personal stories to illustrate the impact that sensitive topics have on people. Personal stories are compelling, but by themselves they don’t prove anything.
It’s sometimes tough to tell the difference between news articles and advertisements. Ads can be designed to look like news. Check the fine print for the word “advertisement.”
Websites often have names that sound authoritative, but are run by organizations or companies selling products. It’s important to make sure that the sites you see are reliable.
Look for sites that are maintained by government agencies — they’ll have .gov in their URL address — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), and by medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org).
Studying the Studies
Knowing there’s a study behind the news is only the first step. How the study was done and who did it also matter. Once you know that a study is the basis of the news report, consider these questions as you decide whether to trust it and whether it’s important to your family.
Was the study done in people?
Many research findings involve work done in the lab, not in humans. These experiments help scientists study the possible effects of a treatment. But what happens in a test tube does not automatically translate into something useful that can be applied to people. Sometimes treatments work in lab animals, like mice, but don’t pan out in people.
Who did the study involve?
Even if the study was done in people, it may not be meaningful for your family. For instance, studies involving only adults may not apply to kids — often, treatments that have been studied and proven safe and effective in adults haven’t been tested in children. Medical research may present ethical and financial issues that can be barriers to studies involving children. Reports on medical research studies should include the characteristics of the participants — such as sex, age, and health status — and this can help you decide if the findings might be of interest to you.
What kind of study is it?
Researchers conduct studies in a number of ways. Prospective studies, many of which track thousands of people for years to see what factors — diet, vitamins, exercise, or other habits — affect health, tend to be more reliable than studies that ask patients to remember and report aspects of their health habits in the past.
Sometimes, researchers look back at medical records or death certificates or give out questionnaires to find out what people did in the past that might have put them at greater risk for some health condition, like heart disease or cancer. Those studies, called retrospective studies, can provide useful clues about diseases, but they are not definitive.
Randomized, controlled clinical trials are best at examining whether a treatment works. For example, in these kinds of trials, half of the participants might be randomly assigned to get a drug or other therapy, and half get a placebo (a pill with no effective ingredients or medications). These types of studies are typically “double-blinded,” which means that neither the patients nor researchers know which participants receive the medications being tested and which receive the placebo.
Understanding the Numbers
How big was the study and how long did it last?
Some studies in the news involve just a handful of people. In general, you can have more confidence in the findings from studies that involve hundreds or thousands of participants.
What do the numbers mean?
Numbers can be confusing. And news reports often make medical conditions seem more common than they actually are. For example, a report may say that a certain factor may “double the risk” of getting a given condition. But if the risk goes from 1% to 2%, that’s still small. On the flipside, a drug may cut the risk of getting a condition in half, but if the risk is low to begin with, taking the drug may not be worth it.
Consider numbers from different perspectives. A child who has a 5% chance of getting a disease has a 95% chance of not getting it.
Where are the results published?
Look for studies that are published in academic research journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, and The New England Journal of Medicine. The groups that issue these journals carefully scrutinize studies before publishing them. That means you can usually trust what appears in them.
But the research that appears in the journals can get distorted in news reports. Reporters cramming complicated information into a short story may oversimplify and make findings seem more conclusive than they are. They also may fail to mention the treatment’s downsides. If possible, look up the original source. Many journals can be read for free at local public libraries or online (where non-subscribers may be charged a fee).
Who funded the research?
A lot of research is funded by the federal government, particularly the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Government-sponsored studies are usually credible, since the researchers and the work that they do has to be carefully evaluated before they can get funding from the government for the study.
It’s becoming more common for pharmaceutical companies and the makers of medical devices to fund clinical research. That doesn’t mean the findings are tainted, but you should take the funding source into consideration. Medical journals list where the funding for a study came from. They also require researchers to disclose conflicts of interest, such as if one of the researchers who conducted the study owns stock in a company that could benefit from positive results.
How do the findings compare with previous studies?
Often, studies make the headlines because they tend to contradict conventional thinking. In truth, it’s rare for a single study to be the final word.
Be especially cautious regarding studies whose conclusions are vastly different than the existing body of research. Most medical thinking emerges from conclusions drawn from many studies over time, and often there are contradictions along the way.
Acting on Medical News
Never diagnose your child or stop a medical treatment based on something in a news report. Instead, when you read or hear about a study that you think might affect your family’s health, talk with your doctor.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2015