Anyone who reads newspapers, surfs the Web, or watches television is likely aware of the prevalence of conflicting medical studies. An obvious example is food studies: Eggs, once believed to be dangerously high in cholesterol, are now considered a health food; margarine, once a healthy alternative to butter, is now know to contain potentially dangerous trans-fats and has been put on the "avoid" list. The same holds true for many medications and devices, as some studies raise alarms about risks while other studies underscore benefits.
Sometimes these reports can be the source of good solid information about the latest medical advancements, helping consumers safeguard their own health or the health of others. But just as often, results from these studies can be exaggerated, misinterpreted or over-generalized, or they may be based on flawed or inconclusive research.
In sorting through the confusion, it is important to realize that the latest study is often just that — the latest in a long series of findings. As such, each new set of findings represents a piece of the puzzle, not the final word.
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Dr. Joseph D. Babb, East Carolina University, lists the three most important things to do if your treatment is mentioned in the news.
It is important that you never stop taking your medication because of something you heard or read in the media or online (see Medication Safety). Always consult with your physician first before stopping your medication or altering your treatment. Not all claims are substantiated, and you could suffer potentially dangerous side-effects if you suddenly stop taking medication that is prescribed to you.
Six Questions to Ask About Health Headlines
To help you sort out the significance of new studies, here are some questions to ask:
Q: Where was the study published?
Typically, physicians pay the most attention to studies published in research journals that have been peer-reviewed — that is, they have been vetted by experts in the field who are peers of the researchers who conducted and wrote the study. Well-known peer-reviewed journals include The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Catheterization and Cardiovascular Interventions, and The Lancet, among many others.
Q: Who conducted the study?
Large, clinical studies conducted by unbiased university or government researchers, especially those from prestigious academic medical institutions or science-based government organizations (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), tend to be more highly regarded in the medical community than studies conducted by researchers representing an organization with a vested interest in the outcome of the study.
Q: What population of people participated in the study?
Many studies focus on a very specific population of people to determine outcome. It is important to determine the general characteristics of the study participants, as the study results may not be the best indicator for how a medication or device may work for you.
Q: What were the protocols of the study?
Generally speaking, studies have more credibility in the medical community if they are randomized, based on large and diverse populations of participants, have carefully established controls, and are blinded to participants, researchers or both.
Q: Who sponsored the trial?
Clinical trials are sponsored or funded by a variety of organizations or individuals such as physicians, medical institutions, foundations, voluntary groups, and medical device or pharmaceutical companies, in addition to federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Federally sponsored trials tend to carry the most weight due to their large size and lack of vested interest in the result.
Q: What does my doctor think?
If you think a new study may have relevance for your health or the health of a loved one, ask your doctor about it — your personal physician is the best person to help you sort out the issues.