Where to find it
Q. There's a lot of health and medical news in the media. If even half of it is true, cures for most diseases must be right around the corner. How can I tell if I should believe a medical news story?
A. Savvy consumers of medical news are critical thinkers and skeptics. Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., faculty editor of Harvard Health Publications, strongly recommends skepticism, saying "Breakthroughs are rare ... and often recognized as such only well after they occur."
The work of knowledgeable health journalists is invaluable in interpreting medical research for the public. Sometimes, however, incomplete or over-enthusiastic announcements from research organizations and other interested parties make their way into the media. News cycle time constraints may not permit full investigation of press release information. Sometimes the facts presented in medical news stories don't fully support their attention-grabbing headlines or lead-ins.
Here are some questions for critically evaluating medical research news.
• Does the story support its claims with clearly identified published scientific research? If the research hasn't been published in a reputable journal or appears only in a conference abstract, it's not ready for prime time.
• Was the research done in humans? If so, was it observational or set up with a control group? Was the study small or large? In medicine, results of large human randomized controlled trials merit the most confidence.
• Did the study actually assess what's in the headline? Sometimes researchers study one thing and make a possibly unwarranted leap to apply the results to something else.
• Is there a comparison with the current standard treatment? Is there information on side effects and risks? Will a commercial treatment result from the study? If so, when will it be available and at what cost?
• Is there a discussion of studies that laid the foundation for this one? Or related research in progress? Do the research results replicate those of similar (even if smaller) studies?
• Did the reporter interview a knowledgeable expert or two not involved in the study? Who paid for and who conducted the research?
A good way to learn about quality in medical journalism is to go to HealthNewsReview.org and read the review criteria, story and news release reviews, and journalist toolkit items. Another site with instructive story analyses is the UK National Health Service's Behind the Headlines, nhs.uk/news.
Usually, obtaining information from a news account is the beginning, rather than the end, of learning about a development in medicine. The Grillo Center often receives requests to research health or medical subjects that have recently been in the news.
Jean Whelan volunteers with the Grillo Center, which offers free, confidential research to assist in health understanding and decisions. To use this service, contact us at grillocenterhealth.org, 720-854-7293 or 4715 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. No research or assistance should be interpreted as medical advice. We encourage informed consultation with your health care provider.