How to evaluate medical research

How to evaluate medical research
Written by: Joanne Zeis
Published: March 14, 2011
Reviewed by: Kevin Zacharoff, MD, March 2011
Did you ever hear the possibility that some childhood vaccines might cause autism? This claim was based on a study
that was published in The Lancet – a reliable British medical journal – in 1998. Unfortunately, it took until 2010 before
The Lancet finally pulled the study from the medical literature, saying that the author’s results were based on
unethical research.
The damage, though, may have already been done: As news about this study spread after 1998, many parents
started questioning whether or not children’s vaccines were safe. Some parents refused vaccinations for their
children altogether – even though 20 or more studies published since 1998 showed that the original report was
wrong. Unfortunately, those newer reports never got as much “press exposure” as they deserved. In the minds of
many, a link between autism and vaccines had been firmly set – even though it was wrong.
Sorting through the hype
So how can you figure out what’s really accurate when it comes to health information? There are many ways to get
health-related information. The best place is always from your health care provider, who is your most trusted source
to answer your questions. But in between visits, you’ll likely hear a lot of other stories about “groundbreaking” medical
research. Some of these reports will be true, and a few of them may be biased. Many, however, may fall somewhere
between fact and fiction. You’ll need to sort through the hype to find the truth. How do you do it?
Whether your medical information comes from the TV news, the radio, a newspaper, or the Internet, the following
guidelines should help:
Look at the source
Which group (or person) is making the claim? Does it come from a respected medical source like a university,
academic medical center, or the National Institutes of Health?
If an individual is sending out the information instead, is that person medically trained? Is he or she an expert in the
If the information is posted on a health-related website, is there a Health on the Net (HON) logo? An HON logo shows
that the site is a good health information resource.
Is it an "urban legend"?
Many medical claims are really fake news stories that have spread like a virus over the Internet. Find out if the
material is real or not by checking a good “urban legend” website.
If the information comes from a medical research study, try to find the whole report
News articles are often written about the most exciting parts of a research study, without giving all of the information.
For example, reports that talk about a “breakthrough” cancer treatment may not say that the treatment is still being
tested in animals, and that researchers won’t know for years if it works for humans. And if it has worked for humans,
the public still may not have access to the treatment for a long time.
Good questions to keep in mind are:
How many people did the study include?
What was the age and gender of the research subjects?
How long did the study last?
Have other researchers had the same findings?
Just because a report is about your illness, it may not apply to you
Medical research that was done on men doesn’t always apply to women. And research that’s done with adults could
have totally different results if children are involved. In the same way, some new medications may work well for one
type of cancer or headaches, but not others.
Look for research that tests a large number of people who are like you.
Keep in mind: A report about one person’s experience with a treatment doesn’t give enough information to change
your own treatment plan!
Speak with your health care provider before making any changes.
Numbers don’t lie, but they may not tell the whole story
You may read, for example, that 5% of all people with your particular illness die before reaching the age of 50. If
you’re 49 years old, this statistic could be very scary. Flip the information around, though, and it has a different “feel”:
“95% of all people with this illness survive past the age of 50.”
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
We’ve all seen articles or websites for products that guarantee “100% success, based on research results!” Learn
more about these claims before spending any of your hard-earned money.
Remember – don’t make snap treatment decisions based on a single news story: Always look for more information.
Your health is too important to take every reported medical claim at face value.
MedlinePlus (search on “understanding medical research”) (click on “understanding and access” / “understanding medical research”
National Institute on Aging (search on “understanding risk”)
New York Online Access to Health (NOAH)