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A Quick Guide For Evaluating Health Studies In The Media

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My purpose here is not to simply jump on the “blame the media” bandwagon. And, of course there are some problems with how they report health studies that everyone should know about.

Reporting on health study results is a mainstay for many news organizations. In fact, most people learn about such studies from news reports on television news, talk shows and newsprint. In my 30 years as a health practitioner, I have rarely seen a health study reported accurately or completely. It’s typically a “blast” that is often scary. The reader or listener is told one of two things: Stop or start doing something! At worst and all too frequently, it is actually deceiving when compared to the actual study results.

You will notice if you look at the history of my HealthNews Bytes, I have commented and clarified on just these kinds of “study results” many times.

I’d like to give you a few tips on how to evaluate these kinds of articles and reports for yourself. I would suggest not making any personal health changes unless you have evaluated the information fully and for yourself.

These are the things to look for:

Who is the expert quoted in the report? Is it the author or one of the authors of the study? Or is someone else simply drawing a conclusion?

Is there any person or organization that will gain financially in getting this information out there?

Who are the authors of the study? Was there some type of bias? For example, in the calcium meta-analysis I wrote about in the newsletter, four pharmaceutical companies were contributing authors. Pharmaceutical companies do not produce calcium supplements. What could their interest be?

Watch for overly generalized wording. For example, many of the articles written about this calcium meta-analysis ended with very general statements like, “calcium and other supplements can increase your risk of a heart attack”. Other supplements…? What other supplements? There were no other supplements in the meta-analysis!

Lastly, the most important thing to do before making any personal changes, go to the original study results and read for yourself the actual conclusions drawn by the authors. In this Internet age, it’s not very difficult to do. In the meantime, I hope this helps you make a quick assessment as to whether what you are hearing or reading is a valid assessment that requires your attention.