Separating fact from fiction in health news
By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
We all want to do the right thing and lead healthy lifestyles, but what should we do when we read conflicting, confusing or downright scary news reports about the safety of a medication, a promising new diet or a habit that can add 15 years to your life? It can be tough to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the latest health research or recommendations.
Take something as simple, straightforward and proven as the flu vaccine. Every year, without fail, there will be someone online imploring people not to get the flu vaccine. They’ll claim an outlandish story or swear they’ve gotten the flu from the vaccine. (It goes without saying that these are false claims. The flu vaccine is one of the best and safest ways to stay healthy.)
Given all the back and forth we see in the media, it can be confusing knowing what the truth really is. Next time you see an unbelievable study, keep these five tips in mind to help you get a clearer and more accurate picture.
1. Do your homework
It’s tough to get all the facts when we’re just skimming headlines and articles. Read the entire article – and a few more stories from different sources – before you form an opinion. This gives you a better, more balanced picture of the study. Well-written news stories won’t give you all the facts, but they should offer both sides of the story, and serve as a jumping-off point for you to learn more.
2. Check your sources
Consider where you get your news. Reputable sites include government websites, like the National Institutes of Health or the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Well-known medical institutions can also be a good source of information. These types of websites often have a clinical review of articles by medical professionals before posting stories online.
Large media outlets can sometimes be a reliable source as they often have the resources and expertise to spend time understanding study results – and higher standards in seeking credible sources and writing balanced stories.
3. Read the actual study
You don’t need to read every single word of a complicated clinical study, but most will publish an abstract and results section to give you a better idea of what researchers found. You should also look for a few key things to make sure the study is credible. Ask yourself:
- Where is the study published? Reputable medical journals include New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, JAMA and other subspecialty journals.
- Is it a randomized controlled trial (RCT)? These types of studies are the most likely to provide accurate results. Other types of research, like observational studies, offer useful insights and information but typically need more study to find a clear cause and effect. Learn more about the different types of clinical research.
- What is the P-value? The smaller the P-value, the more likely that results are reliable, accurate and were not found by chance.
- What is the hazard ratio? This number helps explain how helpful treatments were. The HR should be less than 1.0. Similar to P-value, the smaller the number, the better.
4. Consider what you already know
A recent study that boldly claimed red meat isn’t as bad for you as previously thought raised a lot of eyebrows. Think about the research, studies, news stories and conversations you’ve had with your doctor about a healthy diet.
Those findings seem to go against proven medical advice – and therefore should be critically evaluated. Use your own understanding and knowledge to filter out studies that may be too good to be true.
5. Talk to your doctor
The most important thing you can do is talk to your doctor to better understand how a study or research can or will impact your health. Schedule an appointment or arrange a phone call to discuss your questions or concerns – before you stop taking medication or start something new. Your doctor can explain if or how the study applies to you and how you can continue to take the best care of yourself.