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How do you know which health research claims to trust?

Science and health claims

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?.

Comments
Member

Thanks for this Convo, Chris. I suggest that anyone who is interested in looking at scientific literature should start by looking at scientific reviews in peer reviewed journals rather than individual research papers. The authors of a good review should have looked at the most important papers, summarising the state of knowledge and where uncertainties remain. The authors should have explored the evidence for different theories or hypotheses. Not all reviews are published in open access journals, unfortunately.

One of my main concerns is misuse of science. One way in which this is done is to choose only those research papers that support an argument, conveniently disregarding others. This bias may be difficult for the non-specialist to spot.

Member

I agree with wavechange’s reservations. Any scientific papers I believe need a real understanding of the topic for their significance, impartiality, validity to be properly understood and critically assessed . We used at least two experts to vet submitted papers and even from eminent authors the work often raised questions. There is pressure to get work published particularly from academic institutions; not every topic and theory researched will provide the hoped for advance.

Self diagnosis in medical matters is, I think, particularly worrying; you see this when people trawl the internet and worry themselves about what they find. Used sensibly it can give appropriate questions to ask your doctor or consultant, but you sometimes see it arouses mild irritation.

Important medical issues should be properly vetted by a panel of real experts. The “press” does not have this capability; they prefer to hype something up for impact, not to objectively inform the public. I’d be very wary of lay people’s interpretations of specialist work.

Member

Pardon my pedantry, but in the further interests of plain English, could we have the headline title of this Conversation replaced by “How do you know which health research claims to trust?” ? This will remove any ambiguity of meaning. Thank you.

Member

Niggling, isn’t it?

Member

I agree. I am sure that Which? will wish to correct it speedily.

Member

Morning John, that change has been made. Thanks

Member

Thank you. I am at peace now. I can get on with my life . . . and I might even go out when it stops raining.

Member

Depends what’s in the rain…

Member

For the University world
theconversation.com/from-medical-treatment-to-diet-and-lifestyle-choice-how-to-spot-unreliable-health-research-63572
Noting the longer line length that article is nearly 100% bigger.

However the important lesson for me is that Which? does not provide a white-list of useful resource sites so trying to recall the name of this site in 5 months time will not be solved by a quick look in an index.
Bookmarking on this computer does not help much if one uses several or are using a friends/library computer.

Member

That’s an interesting suggestion @dieseltaylor, I’ll share it with the wider team. My tip is to use a Google account to store these things, you can then log into the account and it pulls up all of your saved bookmarks