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Feature:
Medical Research

Research Results in the News: A Users Guide

Older couple talking to doctor

Newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet are full of health news stories. Some sound too good to be true. Others sound truly alarming. Here are some tips on how to evaluate what you're reading, seeing, or hearing.

It seems to happen almost every day — you hear about a new result of medical research on television or read about it in the paper. Perhaps you hear that a certain drug causes a 300% increase in strokes. That's a large increase — it sounds scary. But, if you know that in every 10,000 people not taking the drug, there are two strokes, then that increase really only means six strokes. Maybe that's not quite so frightening. Sometimes the results of one study seem to disagree with the results of another study. One article says that a new vaccine prevents a serious infection, but another says it doesn't.

To Find Out More

7 questions to ask when you learn about a new medical finding:

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.

Does the study include enough people like you?

You should check to see if the people in the study were the same age, sex, education level, income group, and ethnic background as yourself and had the same health concerns.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 healthcare provider to help you judge how correct the reports are.

Spring 2012 Issue: Volume 7 Number 1 Page 20-21