Research in the news: What does it mean for me?

What does it mean for me?

The amount of information about medical research studies in the news has grown year by year and increased even more dramatically as the pandemic took hold. Many different stories are hitting the headlines each day and much of it appears to contradict yesterday’s news headlines.

In reality what you are actually seeing, perhaps for the first time, is research evidence being created. It can be messy! Healthcare research is not a straight forward process. Many clinical trials often need to take place before firm recommendations and an “evidence-base” can be widely accepted, even if they have been conducted to the highest standards.

Despite what many people believe, research really deals with what is not known not what is. This means it is vital to follow some simple rules so that you can get the most from all the information available and avoid being misled.

Understanding medical research

Choose the "best" sources

First look for widely agreed sources from systematic reviews and NICE first. They have clear explanations intended for the public. These are all based on large numbers of similar trials which are expertly interpreted with recommendations that are safe and consistent.

We also recommend Full Fact where medical claims in the media are examined in detail to see if they stand up to scrutiny. 

Read "critically"

This applies when reading any source of healthcare information (or anything else on the internet for that matter). Research always aims to try and improve our understanding but it can be a long time before clear “answers” emerge, if at all.

A related issue at the moment is that you may need to act quickly with the understanding you currently have and can't always wait for a couple of years. In the pandemic situation, this is how we are all living. But still you can ask.......

Who is saying this? 

How does it fit with what I already know? 

Does it contain other viewpoints? 

Clues as to how useful and reliable information is can be found in the language people use. Sources, whether in old and new media may be less reliable if they seem to be......

1.   Trying too hard to get your attention (“the TRUTH about X!!!!”  - "you will be amazed at Y!?!?").

2.   Convincing you about a particular point of view (theirs) - this is done mainly by ignoring contrary information.

3.   Offering you a simple answer (often scary see 1) when a slightly more complex one is better.

4.  Claiming to be sceptical. Done properly scepticism is useful. Cynicism and conspiracy theories are not.

Finally you may have to.........

Do a little work yourself 

If you do want to dig deeper then there are more detailed resources to help you.

Specifically aimed at patients and the public, there’s a great little free booklet about how to interpret health studies for yourself called “Know your chances: understanding health statistics”.

This is aimed at non-specialists and can help you make sense of the language and methods of research.

Eight Questions to ask when interpreting academic studies by The Journalist’s Resource is another good source for tips on how to read research papers. This will all help you develop a healthy sceptical attitude without throwing the research baby out with the infodemic bathwater.  

Happy reading!