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How to Make Sense of Medical Studies in the News

concerned senior couple watching tv

It’s not uncommon to turn on the news or browse the internet and find a headline promising exciting news about cancer or another medical condition. Headlines like these make it seem like a miracle cure is just within reach:

  • Breakthrough in cancer research could spawn new treatments
  • The Promising Cancer Cure That’s Not Available to Americans
  • 'Exciting' blood test spots cancer a year early
  • Cancer: The mysterious miracle cases inspiring doctors

Many stories like these are based on medical studies, but they often exaggerate benefits, minimize risks, ignore relevant information, or just plain get it wrong. According to the watchdog organization HealthNewsReview, the average media news story about health care interventions merits a score of just 55% out of 100: a failing grade.

Asking these 4 questions can help you better judge health care claims you may hear about or read about in the news:

1. Did the study involve people?

Research studies often start in a lab where scientists develop and test new ideas. If an approach seems promising, it may be tested on animals, often mice. But an approach that works well in the lab or animals doesn’t always work well in people.

Clinical trials are research studies that test whether a treatment, device, or other medical strategy is safe and effective for people. Clinical trials are conducted in a series of phases that build on one another, and are designed to answer certain questions. Earlier phases are to find out if a treatment is safe, if it works, or what its side effects are. Later phases test whether a treatment is better than what is already available and may lead to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Only some trials are designed to test the things that matter most to people: whether a treatment helps people live longer, or improves their quality of life.

2. How many people were involved?

In general, the earlier the phase of a clinical trial, the fewer people are involved in the testing. The most trustworthy scientific evidence comes from a later phase clinical trial that involves hundreds or thousands of people.

Some studies – called case studies – are as small as just one person. News stories about an individual’s successful outcome are interesting and exciting. But they don’t tell us much about the treatment being studied or how it will work in most people.

3. Does the story jump to conclusions?

Many studies are observational. They look for a link between a behavior and an outcome. For example, in some studies, people who drank red wine were less likely to die from heart disease. But no one knows if the benefit came from the wine or from something else the wine drinkers had in common. Maybe they also ate more vegetables, or exercised more. Just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean one caused the other.

The only way to know for sure would be to conduct a randomized, controlled study, in which two groups of people were treated the same except for the one factor being studied.

4. Does the story add up?  

Numbers can be used to make a result sound more impressive than it really is. For example, a story might say that taking a certain drug lowers your risk of stroke by 50%. That sounds very impressive. But if the risk of stroke among the study population was only 2% and the drug lowered it to 1%, that’s less impressive. And if the drug is expensive or has side effects, taking it may not be worth it to you.

Tips for searching online

A good online search can help you find answers to your questions and connect you with people and resources to help when you need it most. But a bad search can get you wrong or outdated facts, medical information that may not apply to you, or even worse, an invitation to be scammed when you’re most vulnerable.

  • Look for trustworthy and reliable websites as your sources. Sites affiliated with groups you already know and trust are often the best places to find quality medical information. This includes nonprofit organizations, government agencies, major medical organizations, and prominent academic health centers.
  • Check with the Health On the Net Foundation (HON). HON is an organization based in Switzerland whose mission is to guide people to useful and reliable online medical and health information. Participating websites must agree to abide by an ethical code of conduct, which covers things like authorship, documentation of materials, and sponsorship of the site.
  • Be suspicious of websites that make claims of “miraculous cures” or “secret ingredients” only available from one company, sites that feature stories of people who have had amazing results from a product without showing clear scientific data, and sites that make it hard to connect with the person or business running the site. Such sites may contain information that is not based on careful science and may deliver misleading information in order to sell you a product.

When it comes to finding out reliable, trustworthy medical information – especially if it’s because you have a health-related problem – your best bet is always to talk to a health care professional who can examine you, your health history, and your unique medical situation. 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.