Sorting Through Health News

Reviewed Mar 6, 2017

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Summary

  • Consider the source.
  • Understand research basics.
  • Be aware of potential bias or error.

Whether it's what to eat and drink or how much to exercise, the latest word on what is best for your health seems to change by the week. How can you decide what steps to take or changes to make regarding your health when the claims about those choices seem contradicting, biased, or just plain confusing? First, consider some reasons why health news might conflict so often:

  • Science is always evolving. Yesterday’s claim may be disproved today through the scientific process.
  • Objectivity might be compromised. Partial information might be presented for financial reasons (to endorse a product for a pharmaceutical company, for example).
  • Research could be poorly designed. Studies improperly controlled can show inaccurate cause and effect.
  • There are limited internet restraints. Since anyone with access to the Internet can publish health claims, there are no guarantees of their validity.
  • There can be other limited restrictions. An herbal product or weight-loss device can be advertised with “miracle” claims for quite some time before the law steps in to show false advertising.

With all of this in mind, keep the following in mind whenever you read about the latest claims concerning your health.

Consider the source

Jim Gerard, author of Navigating the Health Information Maze, advises you to first identify the source of the medical news. If it has any validity at all, it should refer to research study of some kind to back the claim. And this does not include “studies” such as “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend …” What you should expect to find is a reference to a controlled experiment or, regarding a treatment, a clinical trial. To strive for validity, controlled experiments and clinical trials might involve the following:

  • A control group—a certain number of people who do not receive the experimental drug or other treatment for comparison to those who do receive the treatment
  • Randomization—a mix of race, age, ethnicity, etc.
  • Blindness—either just the subjects or both the subjects and the testers do not know who receives the real treatment and who is in the control group
  • Duplication—several studies by different agencies have produced the same findings

As you read about the research, other factors might help you determine how realistic the claim is, such as:

  • Number—the more people in a study, the greater its validity.
  • Quantity of a substance—it’s important to know how much of a target drug or substance is used in controlled experiments. Perhaps an unreasonably high amount of any substance could cause health problems over time.

Where did you read it?

As you work to determine the reliability of a health claim based on the scientific methods explained above, you should also bear in mind where you found the information. Gerard recommends periodicals with good reputations such as The New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association. He cautions readers against magazines and brochures funded by drug companies or political groups that may have too much bias and present only the findings that support their desired claims. If you cannot find support for a health claim in a reputable medical journal, remain skeptical as you look for more proof.

A few more cautions

Still confused about a particular drug or health claim? Don’t ignore symptoms or try a new treatment based on reading one health claim. Be sure to ask your doctor what he has read about the latest medical news that concerns you. Choosing the exact number of minutes to exercise based on medical news is not likely to be a problem for you, but stopping a medication without consulting your doctor could be. You just might also have to trust your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Resource

American Medical Association
www.ama-assn.org

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Health Information by Health Information Technology Institute, 1997; Jim Gerard (2003) “Navigating the Health Information Maze” Fitness Matters, (9)12-15; Peter Lavelle (2002) “Making Sense of Health Information” Health Matters—Consumer Guides

Summary

  • Consider the source.
  • Understand research basics.
  • Be aware of potential bias or error.

Whether it's what to eat and drink or how much to exercise, the latest word on what is best for your health seems to change by the week. How can you decide what steps to take or changes to make regarding your health when the claims about those choices seem contradicting, biased, or just plain confusing? First, consider some reasons why health news might conflict so often:

  • Science is always evolving. Yesterday’s claim may be disproved today through the scientific process.
  • Objectivity might be compromised. Partial information might be presented for financial reasons (to endorse a product for a pharmaceutical company, for example).
  • Research could be poorly designed. Studies improperly controlled can show inaccurate cause and effect.
  • There are limited internet restraints. Since anyone with access to the Internet can publish health claims, there are no guarantees of their validity.
  • There can be other limited restrictions. An herbal product or weight-loss device can be advertised with “miracle” claims for quite some time before the law steps in to show false advertising.

With all of this in mind, keep the following in mind whenever you read about the latest claims concerning your health.

Consider the source

Jim Gerard, author of Navigating the Health Information Maze, advises you to first identify the source of the medical news. If it has any validity at all, it should refer to research study of some kind to back the claim. And this does not include “studies” such as “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend …” What you should expect to find is a reference to a controlled experiment or, regarding a treatment, a clinical trial. To strive for validity, controlled experiments and clinical trials might involve the following:

  • A control group—a certain number of people who do not receive the experimental drug or other treatment for comparison to those who do receive the treatment
  • Randomization—a mix of race, age, ethnicity, etc.
  • Blindness—either just the subjects or both the subjects and the testers do not know who receives the real treatment and who is in the control group
  • Duplication—several studies by different agencies have produced the same findings

As you read about the research, other factors might help you determine how realistic the claim is, such as:

  • Number—the more people in a study, the greater its validity.
  • Quantity of a substance—it’s important to know how much of a target drug or substance is used in controlled experiments. Perhaps an unreasonably high amount of any substance could cause health problems over time.

Where did you read it?

As you work to determine the reliability of a health claim based on the scientific methods explained above, you should also bear in mind where you found the information. Gerard recommends periodicals with good reputations such as The New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association. He cautions readers against magazines and brochures funded by drug companies or political groups that may have too much bias and present only the findings that support their desired claims. If you cannot find support for a health claim in a reputable medical journal, remain skeptical as you look for more proof.

A few more cautions

Still confused about a particular drug or health claim? Don’t ignore symptoms or try a new treatment based on reading one health claim. Be sure to ask your doctor what he has read about the latest medical news that concerns you. Choosing the exact number of minutes to exercise based on medical news is not likely to be a problem for you, but stopping a medication without consulting your doctor could be. You just might also have to trust your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Resource

American Medical Association
www.ama-assn.org

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Health Information by Health Information Technology Institute, 1997; Jim Gerard (2003) “Navigating the Health Information Maze” Fitness Matters, (9)12-15; Peter Lavelle (2002) “Making Sense of Health Information” Health Matters—Consumer Guides

Summary

  • Consider the source.
  • Understand research basics.
  • Be aware of potential bias or error.

Whether it's what to eat and drink or how much to exercise, the latest word on what is best for your health seems to change by the week. How can you decide what steps to take or changes to make regarding your health when the claims about those choices seem contradicting, biased, or just plain confusing? First, consider some reasons why health news might conflict so often:

  • Science is always evolving. Yesterday’s claim may be disproved today through the scientific process.
  • Objectivity might be compromised. Partial information might be presented for financial reasons (to endorse a product for a pharmaceutical company, for example).
  • Research could be poorly designed. Studies improperly controlled can show inaccurate cause and effect.
  • There are limited internet restraints. Since anyone with access to the Internet can publish health claims, there are no guarantees of their validity.
  • There can be other limited restrictions. An herbal product or weight-loss device can be advertised with “miracle” claims for quite some time before the law steps in to show false advertising.

With all of this in mind, keep the following in mind whenever you read about the latest claims concerning your health.

Consider the source

Jim Gerard, author of Navigating the Health Information Maze, advises you to first identify the source of the medical news. If it has any validity at all, it should refer to research study of some kind to back the claim. And this does not include “studies” such as “four out of five dentists surveyed recommend …” What you should expect to find is a reference to a controlled experiment or, regarding a treatment, a clinical trial. To strive for validity, controlled experiments and clinical trials might involve the following:

  • A control group—a certain number of people who do not receive the experimental drug or other treatment for comparison to those who do receive the treatment
  • Randomization—a mix of race, age, ethnicity, etc.
  • Blindness—either just the subjects or both the subjects and the testers do not know who receives the real treatment and who is in the control group
  • Duplication—several studies by different agencies have produced the same findings

As you read about the research, other factors might help you determine how realistic the claim is, such as:

  • Number—the more people in a study, the greater its validity.
  • Quantity of a substance—it’s important to know how much of a target drug or substance is used in controlled experiments. Perhaps an unreasonably high amount of any substance could cause health problems over time.

Where did you read it?

As you work to determine the reliability of a health claim based on the scientific methods explained above, you should also bear in mind where you found the information. Gerard recommends periodicals with good reputations such as The New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association. He cautions readers against magazines and brochures funded by drug companies or political groups that may have too much bias and present only the findings that support their desired claims. If you cannot find support for a health claim in a reputable medical journal, remain skeptical as you look for more proof.

A few more cautions

Still confused about a particular drug or health claim? Don’t ignore symptoms or try a new treatment based on reading one health claim. Be sure to ask your doctor what he has read about the latest medical news that concerns you. Choosing the exact number of minutes to exercise based on medical news is not likely to be a problem for you, but stopping a medication without consulting your doctor could be. You just might also have to trust your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Resource

American Medical Association
www.ama-assn.org

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Health Information by Health Information Technology Institute, 1997; Jim Gerard (2003) “Navigating the Health Information Maze” Fitness Matters, (9)12-15; Peter Lavelle (2002) “Making Sense of Health Information” Health Matters—Consumer Guides

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical or health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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