In the midst of conflicting health studies and information, it’s tempting to ignore science altogether. However, learning to vet healthcare studies is essential for making informed decisions about our health. Here’s advice on how to assess the never-ending stream of health care headlines and the research behind them.
More important than ever
In today’s information-driven world, it is vital for consumers to thoroughly evaluate health care research and its claims. Vetting studies that shape media headlines and healthcare recommendations are crucial for making informed decisions. These are some big reasons:
- The aging population. By 2030, all the living baby boomers—more than 70 million people—will be at least 65 years old. That means a huge percentage of the population is at (or soon will be at) an age where they need to know whether the health information, they’re getting is reliable.
- Poor health. The prevalence of many chronic diseases has risen over time. Today, according to the CDC, six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic disease—while 4 in 10 have two or more chronic diseases.
- Social media information—and misinformation. Due to social media, health care studies (and articles/videos highlighting them) can be seen by more people than ever. While that helps reliable studies gain more traction, it also means unreliable research and claims can spread rapidly and become widely accepted before there’s a chance to stop such misinformation.
A tough road to navigate
In June 2022, the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a program to educate physicians about dietary supplements, highlighting the need for guidance even among medical professionals. Dr. Stephen Soumerai, a leading expert in population medicine, has dedicated his research to studying research studies and aims to empower consumers to understand the strengths and weaknesses of healthcare reports and identify trustworthy study designs. Soumerai’s concern lies in the growing evidence that peer-reviewed publication alone does not guarantee validity, as flawed research design and inaccurate reporting by uninformed media outlets perpetuate the problem of misleading cause-and-effect relationships.
What to ask and what to look for
So what are some important things to think about when deciding for yourself whether a given health study is reliable, well researched and truthful? Here are some questions that Dr. Soumerai and others suggest we consider:
What is this study actually saying, and how was it developed?
The purpose of health studies is to demonstrate the positive effects of interventions on health, but determining the true impact is not always clear. It is important to look beyond headlines and understand the actual claims made by a study. Examining the methodology is crucial, as poorly designed studies with statistical adjustments can lead to biased results. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard for establishing cause and effect and should be prioritized. Many published studies rely on correlational research, which cannot prove causation and are difficult to control for variables. While not worthless, correlational studies should be viewed with skepticism.
Who is providing the funding?
To ensure the reliability of a research study, it is important to scrutinize the funding and affiliations. Look for studies conducted by impartial clinical researchers at respected academic medical centers or funded by nonpartisan think tanks or public health agencies. Be cautious of studies that resemble advertisements for specific products. While reputable medical journals typically disclose funding information, media outlets may not provide such details. Additionally, studies with positive findings are more likely to be published, potentially creating a publication bias. Industry-sponsored studies may be designed to favor their products, such as comparing them to placebos or low-dose ineffective treatments.
Who else is benefiting?
Skepticism should extend beyond industry-funded studies to include media and academia. Sensational studies that align with readers’ views or generate web traffic can drive ad sales for media outlets. Academic researchers face pressure to publish for career advancement, potentially leading to a bias in favor of presenting research in a favorable and dramatic light. To mitigate these biases, it is important to consult multiple studies from diverse sources.
Who is being studied?
It’s important to pay attention to the diversity of study participants, as samples that don’t represent a wide range of people can lead to skewed findings. Including individuals from different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds in larger sample sizes is essential for reliable research and to avoid biases like confirmation bias.
These guidelines offer a foundation for assessing the influx of health care data and findings, aiding in more informed conversations with medical providers and informed decision-making. Taking proactive steps to understand the real facts behind healthcare decisions is essential for ensuring the quality of life.
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