home icon

How to Interpret a Breaking Medical News Story

Get past the headlines touting the latest study. Go straight to the source and sift through the details to discover what you really need to know.

By Matthew Solan | February 8, 2013
Contributor Photo

Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

You've seen the headlines in the paper or on the computer screen touting medical claims, like “Calcium Builds Strong Bones, Says New Research” or “Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds.”
 
So often readers will quickly react to these types of sensational stories. They begin to eat tons of kale or pop a new supplement. It's understandable. After all, studies would never lie, right?
 
But you need to ask yourself: What is the real story? What do these studies mean?

(MORE: Study Gives Snorers an Urgent Wake-Up Call)
 
“These stories sometimes can mislead or confuse," says Kim Walsh-Childers, a journalism professor at the University of Florida whose research areas include print media news coverage of health issues. "It is not that these findings are wrong in most cases. Media outlets want to grab readers' attention. The best way to do that is with headlines and lead paragraphs that convey the ‘selling point’ of a study."

No demographic is perhaps more vulnerable to overhyped health stories than boomers — they're more inquisitive about the latest news, potential cures and anything that can improve their lives. And they've never had more breaking health stories coming at them than now.
 
But having greater access to medical research also means one has to be more leery, says Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, a watchdog site that analyzes and grades health-related stories from various media outlets. “One of the biggest obstacles,” he says, “is that people tend to view anything published in a prestigious journal as if were handed down from the mountaintop and etched in stone tablets.”

The truth is most published studies are not designed for direct-to-public consumption. “It is a way for scientists to share among themselves and have a conversation,” Schwitzer says. “When the findings get picked up by the media as ‘news,’ we are, in fact, eavesdropping.
 
“However, I am a huge supporter of open access and of people’s ability to look up journal articles. But if you are going to do that you need to understand the landscape.”
 
This means you should look past the headline and even the news story itself and go straight to the source: the actual study. This way you can separate must-know from nice-to-know. You can examine how a study was conducted and look for key words and phrases that separate ground floor from groundbreaking.
 
Here’s a primer on how to study the studies:
 
Know your abstracts. Abstracts are summaries that cover the study’s basics:
  • Background: The people involved in the study in terms of gender, sex, age and specific health conditions.
  • Objectives: The intended goal.
  • Methods: How the study was conducted — for example, its duration and a comparison of what the subject group was exposed to versus the placebo group.
  • Conclusion: What the researchers found.
 
Abstracts are a snapshot that can help you grasp the overall concept and outcome of a study without getting too bogged down in technical lingo. These summaries are often what journalists use for their story’s foundation. However, you should never rely solely on an abstract for all relevant information. “Too little is revealed,” Schwitzer says. “You still have to make the effort to read the full study. There are many studies that produce misleading abstracts.” A good source for finding abstracts and links to full studies is PubMed.gov.

(MORE: 10 Top Wellness Apps to Meet Your Health Goals)
 
Look for a placebo. The abstract should mention how the study’s results compared with a controlled group or placebo — the must-have measuring stick in the science world. A placebo-controlled study is a way of testing a medical therapy. In addition to a group of subjects that receives the treatment to be evaluated, a separate control group receives a sham 'placebo' treatment which is designed to have no effect. If a study does not include a placebo, the findings are almost irrelevant. The exception is research that involves drugs, which may not use placebos, but rather compare the drug with existing medications.
 
Sometimes studies use a “historical control group” from several years or even decades earlier. The problem is it's not a fair comparison because certain elements might vary, altering the results — for instance, patient backgrounds or environmental factors.
 
Do the numbers. Certain parts of abstracts are not fully explained in media stories. Those parts can shed light on how much merit the study has within the science community. All studies have to go through a series of necessary phases until final peer review. But you shouldn’t get too excited about findings whose results are based on lower-level research.
 
The key is to look at the study’s size: The number of people involved in conducting the study indicates how far it has traveled, from the initial stage to final peer review. Note that the Food and Drug Administration has a slightly different description of the phases of clinical trials designed specifically for drugs. But other studies often follow these steps:
  • Pre-clinical The ground floor of research. The study dealt only with animals or was limited to the lab (say, in test tubes). The initial findings are often reported because they might be of interest, but their clinical importance is not yet known. 
  • Phase 1 Often deals with 20 or fewer patients. If it involves a new drug, the purpose is to observe its toxicity. Again, the media may cover the findings, as the results can be interesting, but they are far from conclusive.
  • Phase 2 Research has a bigger (but limited) sample size, perhaps 20 to 60, and the study is more focused. For instance, a prostate cancer study may examine males across different ethnic groups who previously had no success with conventional treatment. The goal in Phase 2 is to see how subjects respond to a new drug or therapy by itself. The duration often lasts up to a year.
  • Phase 3 The final and most respected category. More researchers are involved than the original team, reducing the potential for bias. Also, a large pool of subjects, several hundred to several thousand, are examined nationwide over an extended time frame, say, five years or longer. The goal is to compare the benefits of the new drug or treatment to a standard therapy.
  • Phase 4 In drug-based studies, this stage is conducted after FDA approval and includes commitment studies that are required or agreed to by a sponsor. This level gathers additional information about the drug’s safety, efficacy or optimal use.

Making sense of the latest medical news requires a little more effort than just scanning headlines. A common-sense approach goes a long way. If you're reading about a lower phase study, proceed with caution. Be sure to do more reading and research if the subject is related to your current health, gender or age group. And, of course, ask your doctor.
 
The bottom line: Whenever you come across a medical news revelation, a little healthy skepticism goes a long way. “You get a great deal of truth and accuracy from media reports,” Walsh-Childers says. “But don’t suddenly change your life because of it. Like many health studies say, moderation usually is a good thing — and that includes our response to health news.”
 
Read All About It

If the idea of reading scientific studies sounds daunting, check out HealthNewsReview.org. Its 10-step grading criteria includes whether the media report adequately grasps the quality of the evidence and quantifies the potential benefits, side effects and cost of the treatment or drug.
 
“About 70 percent of the 1,800-plus stories we have reviewed are graded unsatisfactory on the three criteria that are arguably the most important: cost, benefits and potential harm,” Schwitzer says. “That is disturbing.”