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Medical Research 101

Tips To Help Determine Reliability Of A Particular Study

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Scientific knowledge constantly evolves as new evidence addes to the existing body of research. Acting on misinformation can be very harmful. Be sure to check all information you learn with your doctor before making any change based on it.

To help find reliable information, consider the following to help determine reliability of a particular study:

  • Was the study published? If so, where?
    • If the study is not published in a peer reviewed journal beware. Peer review journals are journals where the information has been reviewed by experts in the field prior to publication. For example, one of the best known peer reviewed journals is the New England Journal of Medicine offsite link
    • Many findings which are reported at medical meetings make their way into the press. Such findings are frequently preliminary, and are usually not peer reviewed.
  • What is the source?
    • Studies, trial data and statistics provided by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, or a well-respected medical institution (such as Johns Hopkins University or Medical Center), or a professional organization such as the American Medical Association, are likely to reflect accurate and unbiased information. 
    • Information provided by a group or organization with which you are unfamiliar, should be given closer scrutiny. 
  • Who was the lead researcher? 
    • The stronger the researcher's background, the more likely the research is reliable.
  • Who paid for it?
    • According to Consumer Reports on Health, pharmaceutical companies provide almost 60 percent of all biomedical research funding in the U.S.
    • There is of course a potential conflict of interest if the funder is a pharmactueical company with a direct financial interest in the outcome of the research. 
    • If the funder has a potential conflict of interest, that does not mean the findings are irrelevant. It only means to be cautious.
  • How many people were involved in the study?
    • The more people, the more reliable the results. For example, the results of a study involving 10,000 people are likely to be more reliable than a study involving only 20 people.
  • What the study a controlled clinical trial or an observational study?
    • The gold standard is a controlled study where some people receive the treatment in question and some don't.
    • Observational studies compare llarge populations of people and look for connections between habits or behaviors that they did independently and various health outcomes. Observational studies do not prove causal effect.
  • The period of time over which the study occurred.
    • The longer the period of time over which the study is conducted, the more likely the information is to be accurate. 
    • Beware of information based on limited studies, such as a "study"  over a few month period.
  • Is the study up-to-date?
    • It is important that information is timely as well as accurate -- particularly since we are living in a time when medical information can change very quickly.
  • What do other sources say about the information?
    • Check to see if there are published reports about the study and what they say. Governmental agencies and reputable organizations may also have commented on the study or the published result.

For information about how to do medical research on the internet, click here.

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