Four tips for understanding medical news: What to do when the studies disagree

Medicine is a science. That means research should provide clear answers that stand the test of time and scrutiny from additional investigations. That's the theory behind evidence-based, data-driven scientific medicine. But in our imperfect world, things don't always turn out as they should. The April 2008 issue of Harvard Men's Health Watch explains how to handle medical advice that changes from day to day and study to study.

Here are four tips:

  1. Understand the different types of research you are likely to hear about. Randomized controlled clinical trials are the gold standard for medical research, and really the only way to prove whether an intervention is beneficial or harmful. Meta-analyses are also important—they combine the results of many different studies and use sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze the pooled data. Observational studies can provide information on links between two factors, but they cannot prove that one factor caused another. Results from animal and laboratory studies should be considered preliminary.
  2. Read behind the headlines. Beware of summaries that transform research findings into simplistic formulas for health, and focus on results that have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
  3. Even high-visibility medical studies published in major journals are often contradicted or modified by subsequent research. This may be frustrating, but new information should always be welcome, even if it casts doubt on established beliefs.
  4. When you read about medical research, see how the new information fits into your personal health puzzle before you decide to change your ways. Keep the big picture in mind, and remember to factor in your personal preferences and priorities. If you have lingering questions, discuss them with your doctor.

Also in this issue:

  • Stress and the prostate
  • Magnet therapy
  • On call: Selenium and diabetes
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