Assessing Medical Research (1)

In a perfect world, every claim for a new health care treatment that reached you via the news media would be accurate and clear.  Unfortunately, the reality is that even experienced clinicians reading the evidence in medical journals need to consider carefully the meaning of the research before they use it to change how they manage their patients.  There are many ways for errors in collection, analysis and interpretation of medical research data to creep into even the best published studies.  The subject is so complex that one well-reviewed book on how to assess medical research (1) runs to over 300 pages.

It would be helpful if people who were famous or who appeared on heavily viewed media or wrote books that were bestsellers could be relied upon for accurate information, well-supported by evidence.  Unfortunately, some of the best known authors/speakers in the health field and their books and web sites, are full of claims that can’t be properly assessed because they have not been carefully studied.  The likelihood is that most of their recommendations would not be validated by scientific testing.  By the time this research is published, though, the promoting author/salesperson will have sold a lot of related product and then moved on to their next claim.

How, then, can a person lacking formal medical training properly evaluate claims they hear on radio, television, newspaper, internet or Facebook?  More in the next post.

1. Gehlbach, SH. Interpreting the Medical Literature.  McGraw-Hill Medical.  2006.  (Note that unlike other books I have cited in earlier posts, I have not read this one myself.  A review in JAMA was quite positive, however.)

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