As a medical communicator, I am often bombarded with medical articles, e-mails, press releases and literature on the latest and greatest medical findings. Determining which items are truly newsworthy means being able to quickly assess the value of the medical research.
Remember, everyone today likes to use the word “breakthrough” and “revolutionary” when referring to their medical product or service. I generally proceed with caution when I see that as I’ve produced stories on the truly revolutionary, and it should be reserved for something worthy of that moniker.
Here are some of the ways I sort through the clutter. I thought these tips might be helpful to new medical reporters and producers.
First, Validate the Study
1. Determine what and who the study is about. 2. Ask yourself who the subjects of the study are (this information may appear in the “Abstract” summary). 3. What is the study size?
As a general rule, the larger the number of patients included in the study, the more reliable the evidence.
Secondly, Verify Your Sources
1. Check the source of the information. 2. Who conducted the study is important, but so is who paid for the study. This information can usually be found at the end of the report, often referred to as “Disclosures” or “Conflicts of Interest.”Studies funded by universities, hospitals or other independent research are generally more likely to provide unbiased information. 3. Determine the type of study.
Thirdly, Know Your Studies
There are three major classifications of studies:
1. Observational studies – patients observed and characteristics recorded
2. Experimental studies – involve a form of intervention such as a drug or treatment, and
3. Meta-analyses or review articles – results taken from several similar studies and analyzed as a whole
* Case Reports and Case Series: deal with one or few individuals whose characteristics are recorded
* Retrospective Studies: look into the past case histories of groups of people to attempt to find a cause or risk factors for certain diseases or conditions
* Prospective Studies: may also be experimental; follow a group of patients forward in time
* Controlled Trials: studies with at least two matched groups- One group receiving an experimental drug as the control and one group not receiving the drug or treatment as the placebo
* Randomized Trials: assigned to groups of people for one treatment or another.
* A Randomized Controlled Trial: considered the gold standard for design of medical studies. It’s important to keep in mind that just because a study is new, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better than an older study on the same subject.
Since media are the most common way that medical information reaches the public, it’s important that anyone reporting on health news be familiar with the above. Also, read between the lines. A “theory” is yet to be proven and “may” does not mean “can” or “will.” Studies are subject to criticism and peer review, by other experts in the field who point out flaws or weaknesses in a study. If someone is affiliated with a certain university, hospital, pharmaceutical company or medical product it should raise an eyebrow if they are reporting on it.
It’s important to seek out other points of view so that consumers receive enough information to make well-informed decisions about their health. It’s okay to ask, “One more thing…”.