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Published on: April 13, 2012
by Connie Midey for AZ Central
One day, researchers point to butter as the villain and margarine as the good guy. Then new studies come along, and the two foods switch roles.
Cellphones, blamed for brain cancer in one study, are vindicated in the next.
“This is just part of the scientific process,” says physician Lisa Schwartz, professor at Dartmouth Medical School and author with Steven Woloshin and H. Gilbert Welch of “Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics.”
“There is such a demand for health news. Sometimes you read the ‘definitive’ thing, but it doesn’t always turn to be true.”
Side effects may develop after a study ends, or new research with another group of subjects may yield different results.
Schwartz says even medical professionals at times have difficulty interpreting research. So what’s a layperson supposed to do?
Before you ditch your deodorant because you read that it causes breast cancer, ask yourself and your doctor a few questions.
“It’s about having a healthy skepticism,” she says. Schwartz suggests starting with: “What is this study trying to say, and do I believe it? Is it about people like me, or is it an early result, perhaps from animal research?”
If research concludes that a certain intervention — a drug or food or treatment — reduces risk, she would ask, “My risk of what exactly? Is it something I really care about? Does it affect whether I live or die? Or is it just about a blood test or X-ray result?”
The National Institutes of Health lists seven questions to ask about medical findings. Schwartz would add: How big is the expected benefit? What are the side effects? Do the research subjects have the same level of disease you have? If not a randomized, controlled trial, was it an observational study?
The first type is “the gold standard,” Schwartz says. “People are randomly assigned to the thing being tested, such as to the new drug or to the old drug. Then when we see differences at the end of the study, we can feel confident that they are because of the intervention we did.”
Observational studies have a place, too, sometimes out of necessity. Researchers can’t assign subjects to do something harmful, such as smoke cigarettes.
But with a study that follows people over time, “it’s hard to separate out one contributing factor from all their lifestyle habits,” Schwartz says.
Seven questions to ask when you learn about a new medical finding
1. Was it a study in the laboratory, in animals or in people?
The results of research in people are more likely to be meaningful for you.
2. Does the study include enough people like you?
You should check to see whether the people in the study were generally the same age, sex, education level, income group and ethnic background as you and had the same health concerns.
3. Was it a randomized, controlled clinical trial involving thousands of people?
They are the most expensive to do, but they also give scientists the most reliable results.
4. Where was the research done?
Scientists at a medical school or large hospital, for example, might be better equipped to conduct complex experiments or have more experience with the topic. Many large clinical trials involve several institutions, but the results may be reported by one coordinating group.
5. If a new treatment was being tested, were there side effects?
Sometimes the side effects are almost as serious as the disease. Or they could mean that the drug could worsen a different health problem.
6. Who paid for the research?
Do those providing support stand to gain financially from positive or negative results? Sometimes the federal government or a large foundation contributes funding toward research costs. This means they looked at the plans for the project and decided it was worthy of funding, but they will not make money as a result. If a drug is being tested, the study might be partly or fully paid for by the company that will make and sell the drug.
7. Who is reporting the results?
Is the newspaper, magazine or radio or television station a reliable source of medical news? Some large publications and broadcast stations have special science reporters on staff who are trained to interpret medical findings. You might want to talk to your health-care provider to help you judge how correct the reports are.
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