How to Understand Health News

How to Understand Health News

By Evelyn Cunico, M.A., M.S.

Posted June 22, 2014

Almost every day, you hear or read health news about the results of medical studies. Sometimes, medical study results seem contradictory or inconsistent with earlier studies. How do you learn how to understand health news? And, how do you know whether the studies affect you or your family?

Seeking reliable health information is one way to take an active role in managing your health. To start, ask a series of questions.

Is the study based on scientific research? Although scientific research is not perfect, it is the best way to reach accurate conclusions about human health.

How do the study findings compare with previous studies? If study findings are dramatically different from earlier findings, they may need further research.

Where was the study published? A health news report may confirm the credibility of a study by referring to a medical or scientific journal where the study was published, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, or Pediatrics, or Nature, or Science. You may read some journal articles or their abstracts (summaries) for free at your public library.

Was the study procedure tested on people? Experimental tests begin in science laboratories on cells or animals. Although these experiments are an important first step, they do not necessarily apply to people. For example, a drug that works in lab mice may not work in people.

Does the study include people who are similar to you in age, gender, race, and health status? Even if a study was done in people, the results may not be meaningful to you or to your family. For example, many medical studies do not include children, because ethical and financial issues may present legal barriers.

How big was the study? Studies of hundreds or thousands of people are more likely to have statistically strong results. Small studies may find results that are just by chance, or they may miss important differences.

Did the study have a “control group”? If a study is about whether a treatment has an effect, then the study must include a control group. A control group allows researchers to compare what happens to persons who have the treatment with what happens to persons who do not have the treatment.

Who paid for the study research? If the study was funded by the federal government, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, you can usually trust the information. When pharmaceutical companies and the makers of medical devices fund clinical research, the researchers may or may not have conflicts of interest.

Over what length of time was the study conducted? Sometimes, benefits and risks, such as side effects, may not show up for months or years. A treatment or product may appear to be successful on a short-term basis, but may not be safe over time.

Acting on Medical News: Never diagnose yourself or your child or stop a medical treatment based on something in a news report. Instead, when you read or hear health news that you think might affect you or your family, talk with your doctor. – A tip from The Nemours Foundation.

A disclaimer: The information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your doctor. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your medical doctor or other healthcare provider.

References

 National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine (NCCAM). “Understanding Health News.”
(Accessed 15 June 2014)

National Institutes of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. “Understanding Medical Research.”
(Accessed 18 June 2014

National Institutes of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed Health. “How to Read Health News,” by Dr. Alicia White. From “Behind the Headlines,” provided by NHS Choices (from England’s National Health Service).
(Accessed 16 June 2014)

The Nemours Foundation. “Making Sense of Medical News.”
(Accessed 18 June 2014)

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