Will statins prevent heart attacks or are they harmful? Should we avoid eating fat or carbs? Will binge-watching TV kill us?
We face so many confusing health messages in the media, and trying to make decisions and understand how good the evidence behind these claims can be daunting. When it comes to research studies, there’s a real range in quality and it’s hard to sort the good from the bad.
Confusing health messages
The media play a vital role in communicating science – without it, we wouldn’t hear about most health research. But sometimes media reports misrepresent what the research shows.
Although there is plenty of good science journalism, the conflict between scientists’ slow, (hopefully) careful research and critical thinking and journalists’ need for fast exciting stories can result in some confusing health messages for consumers. While the media provide a useful service, what if we didn’t need to rely solely on the media to weigh up what a research study can and can’t tell us?
Which? readers don’t need to be persuaded of the value of considering evidence for their own decision making. Yet critical appraisal – the process of assessing the quality and usefulness of a research study – is (unfortunately) not common sense.
Research papers can be dense and inaccessible to newcomers and without a guide to navigate through the paper, reading research can be frustrating. It’s something that only some researchers and medics have been trained to do, and even those with training may find the skills difficult to maintain. So what if we could find out for ourselves what research papers mean?
Understanding the science
Some scientific journals are trying to do their bit by offering Plain English summaries of research, and thanks to the Open Access movement in academic publishing, more and more research papers are freely available online.
But the more research that becomes available, the clearer it becomes that simply accessing research is only half the battle; the tricky part is to understand it.
That’s why the new Understanding Health Research tool has been designed. This new tool aims to help more people wade through the research. It’s been created is for those with no science background and professional evidence users alike, so they can weigh up the quality of research papers for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Now we don’t need to take anybody else’s word for it. It may not be a replacement for the advice of healthcare providers, or organisations who review quality of research for us like NHS Behind the headlines, but it is one more tool to help people think critically and engage with health research.
This is a guest contribution from Chris Patterson, Research Assistant MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow. All views expressed here are Chris’s own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.