The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on Health Information

We are surrounded by information about health. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not so good. And some is downright bad.

The Good…

The good stuff will often be found in peer-review journals. This means a research study has been evaluated by experts in the relevant field before being published. The journal regards the research to be high quality and the study has evidence for the conclusions made. Unfortunately, not many journals are open access and freely available. The other tricky thing is that the methodologies and language used to write the articles are very technical. It is then up to science/health communicators and the media to translate the research into something meaningful to the general public. This is where things can get a bit hit and miss for a range of reasons.

 

Various medical peer review journals
Articles are published in journals that focus on different specialties

Some research institutions and research funders including not-for-profits will talk up the results to promote their work. The promise of clinical trials imminently, when in fact they are several years away, is a common tactic. The research may well be encouraging but it is a cruel enticement for those patients who don’t have years to live and no likelihood of making it on to a trial. Many institutions and funders do of course report responsibly about their findings, perhaps at the risk of being a little boring, and their stories constitute more of the good stuff you’ll find on the Internet and beyond.

The Bad…

Sometimes, the bad stuff is unintentionally bad. Some media stories fall into this category. The very nature of the media is that reporters work to certain news values that make a story newsworthy: impact, prominence, human interest, to name a few. A story must have a strong lead or introduction to attract your attention. All of this is a recipe for an accident waiting to happen, particularly if a journalist is inexperienced or short on time. Deadlines are often horrendously tight for the media and challenge the most conscientious of journalists, many of whom are also at the mercy of an editor or two further up the line.

Health and medical research portrayed as a wheel of fortune where coffee can cause depression in twins
Health news portrayed as a Wheel of Fortune. Cartoon by Jim Borgman.

Occasionally, a poor research study slips through the net and is published in a peer review journal. This also constitutes the bad stuff and may be unintentional, or worse, because of scientific misconduct. Unfortunately, the peer review process may not pick up an oversight in the study design or miss important details. The research is retracted (withdrawn) by the journal.

Good/Bad or Lost in Translation?

More often, new findings together with the benefit of hindsight shed fresh light on previous work. To be fair, this is probably neither good nor bad. But it can be utterly confusing. Particularly, when the research is about lifestyle issues. Should we or shouldn’t we be doing x, y or z? We could be forgiven for feeling a little cynical about what the actual take home message is.

Healthcare brands and businesses employ copywriters to create persuasive and compelling information in various forms. They are, after all, selling a product. Copywriters must comply with legal and regulatory considerations to ensure they don’t mislead consumers and they should review the evidence-base i.e. research results for the claims they are making. But are they given all the information? It has been shown that clinical trials with negative results are not always reported in the scientific literature. Equally concerning, there is evidence of selective reporting i.e. picking and choosing which outcomes to highlight in some published clinical trials. Certainly, drug companies are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about how they conduct research and their findings. Not before time.

The Ugly…

Then, there are the pretenders. Beware flashy websites and Facebook pages that promise better health and various cures for all sorts of conditions using unproven treatments. Testimonials and/or claims of clinical trials underway without published data are not evidence that a treatment is good for you or that it works. You have to ask yourself, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. And if you think you have got nothing to lose, think again.

How does The Accidental Researcher fit into all of this?

The Accidental Researcher takes an objective look at topical issues in health and medical research. What are the latest advances? What do they mean, if anything, to those of us in the real world? Research results are not always clear-cut. And there is no such thing as a breakthrough. Advances are incremental, one finding builds on another. We are all accidental researchers by necessity, trying to make sense of it all…

Useful Links

Evidence to the House of Commons Sci Tech Selection Committee on Research Integrity post by Ben Goldacre in 2017.

Media Coverage of Medical Journals: Do the Best Articles make the News? Interesting article published in The Lancet in 2014.

Retraction Watch is a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers and on related topics.

What’s the Harm? Stem Cell Tourism Edition post by Dr David Gorski on Science-based Medicine in 2016.

 

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