DIMENSIONS Autumn 2007

Can you trust what you read?

by Cecily Jenkins, Ph.D.

If you read the newspaper, watch television or surf the Internet, you know the overwhelming amount of medical information available. Some is scientifically sound, some based on opinion, and some is incomplete or even misrepresented.

Evaluating the credibility of reports is very challenging for the unprepared consumer. Do you have the necessary tools to make sense of what you read and hear? Are you “information literate?”

Asking the following questions can help you decide what to believe.

1. Where does the information come from?

PEER-REVIEWED JOURNALS: Articles published in reputable peer-reviewed journals are the most respected source of information, as the work has been reviewed by other qualified members of the profession. If you have difficulty obtaining or interpreting findings from these primary source articles, turn to professionals skilled in explaining such data to help you understand the results and conclusions.

THE INTERNET: The Internet is a rich source of information but because it is unregulated, you should check the sponsorship of a website to establish its reputability. Some reliable websites providing health information include:

TV AND PRINT: Look carefully at information published in newspapers and magazines or reported on television. Most reporters are journalists rather than experts in the medical field. Very preliminary medical findings may be released in the news prematurely and with sensational impact. If your interest is sparked by something you hear or read in the news, go to a professional website to evaluate it further.

Always be especially cautious about information that is based solely on opinion or personal experience. Phrases such as “miraculous treatment” and “cure,” and claims that a product treats a wide range of ailments, is available from only one source, or is available only for a limited time are generally aimed at selling you something.

2. How DEFINITE is the reported finding?

Knowing something about the type or phase of a research study can help you determine the certainty of conclusions being drawn from its findings. The size and duration of the study are also important, as is the repeatability of a finding. A positive result from a single study is exciting. The same positive result across multiple studies is convincing!

The gold standard for scientific research has traditionally been a type of experimental study in which participants are randomly assigned to either an experimental or a control group. Neither the participants nor the researchers who evaluate them know which person is in which group until the study is completed. Known as a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial, this type of study is rigorous and is able to establish with the greatest degree of certainty whether a given factor likely caused a specific outcome.

Treatment studies known as human clinical trials are experimental studies specifically focused on treatments that appear promising in preliminary laboratory and animal studies. Clinical trials are usually conducted in distinct phases, each designed to answer specific questions and each being a necessary step toward FDA approval of the treatment option. In evaluating information from results of clinical trials, consider from which phase of investigation the finding comes. It will give you some idea of how much is known about the treatment being studied and whether it will likely be submitted for FDA approval in the near future.

3. Is the information current?

Television and newspapers are media forms geared toward time-sensitive reporting, so the currency of information is generally not in question. When gathering information on the Internet however, be sure to check whether the web page you are viewing has been updated recently because outdated information can remain on the Internet for a very long time.

4. Does the information apply to me?

Consider who participated in the study of interest and how they were recruited. If, for example, individuals with specific health problems were excluded from participating in a study, then the findings from this study may be limited to those who do not have the excluded health conditions. Those unaware of this limitation may place themselves in danger if they use such a treatment.

Staying well-informed about medical developments is to be applauded, but it is vitally important to remember that medical information you gather through public media sources is not a substitute for professional health care! Gather information freely but cautiously, and always discuss any questions or thoughts you may have about treatment options with your personal physician. After all, if diagnosing and treating disease were simply a matter of reading the newspaper or surfing the Web, we’d be living in a disease-free society!

Reprinted with permission from the UCSD Shirley-Marcos ADRC “Currents” newsletter – Fall, 2006 edition (adrc.ucsd.edu)

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