“A new study finds people with heart disease…”
It is nearly impossible to listen to the evening news, scan the Internet or pick up a newspaper without hearing about the latest medical study. Even though these studies can make big headlines, most of us are left wondering what, if anything, it means to us or a loved one.
CardioSmart provides easy-to-understand summaries of research into the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of heart conditions. This page offers pointers to help you make sense of scientific studies and wade through health information found online.
Medical Studies—The Never Ending Story
Clinical studies are rarely definitive. One study is just that. If anything, each study raises new questions and suggests future storylines. Research may support earlier findings or have vastly different results, so the chapter is never closed. That’s why, even if a treatment is found to be very effective, most authors still call for more research to better understand the intervention—who might benefit, if there are side effects, how it can be applied in practice, etc.
Making Sense of Medical Studies
Not all studies are well designed, and results can be taken out of context. But asking a few key questions can help you get useful information about the study. For example:
• Who paid for the study? Clinical research might be funded by government agencies like the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; academic centers and foundations; or pharmaceutical or medical device companies. Conflicts of Interest or Disclosures by the investigators should be included in the article.
• How was the study done? There are lots of ways that researchers can test new medications or devices, procedures or behavior changes that may help people stay healthy. Randomized controlled double-blinded trials are considered the gold standard when it comes to study designs. This means that patients are randomly assigned to receive the new therapy or standard care or placebo and neither the patients nor the doctors know whether they are receiving the therapy. This helps eliminate potential for bias. Review articles and meta-analyses are also helpful in pulling together data from multiple studies and assessing the current state of knowledge about a particular treatment approach.
• Where was the article published? Not all scientific journals are the same. Articles that appear in “peer reviewed” journals have been strictly vetted by experts with no connection to the research. Examples of reputable journals include the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) and Circulation.
• How many participants were included? The study should ideally include enough participants so that the findings can predict how the treatment will work in similar groups in the general population.
• Are the people in the study like you? Find out who took part to see if it even applies to you. For example, findings from studies that only include adult men may not apply to women. Early medical research is typically done in a laboratory using animals or cells, so don’t assume the research was performed in humans.
• How long did the study last? Researchers should follow patients long enough to be sure that the treatment really works. For example, to find out whether a certain diet lowers a person’s risk of heart attack would require years, even decades, of monitoring. Also, the longer a treatment is studied, the more information can be collected about side effects.
• Are the findings statistically significant? This means that there was a clear difference in treatment outcomes of those patients receiving the treatment in question and the likelihood this difference is due to chance is very small.
Doing Your Own Research
If you are like most Americans, you’ve probably searched the Internet to learn more about a news report, symptoms or a specific treatment. According to a recent survey, 8 out of 10 Internet users have looked online for health information, and for good reason. You can find a wealth of health-related information and resources 24-7. Plus, the more you know about your condition and potential treatments, the more informed you will be when making decisions about how to treat or prevent problems.
But, you need to be careful. Anyone can post information online, so some websites may contain false or misleading information. Be sure to limit your search to websites you know you can trust.
Here are some tips to use when searching for or interpreting health information online:
• Stick with credible websites. Government health agencies and reputable medical organizations like the American College of Cardiology are good sources. CardioSmart provides consumers with credible information and regular summaries of clinical studies about cardiovascular health and treatments. This information is reviewed by expert cardiologists.
• Is it fact or opinion? Information should be based on facts and credible medical research, not opinion.
• Has it been reviewed by a doctor or other medical expert?
• If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of websites or news reports that make dramatic health claims.
• Double check what you’ve read. Compare the information you find in your Internet search with other reliable sources (for example, a medical textbook and, most importantly, advice from your health care team).
• Ask your health care provider to help interpret the information. Just because a specific therapy worked under certain (study) conditions doesn’t mean it is the right treatment for you.
Questions to Ask
If you need help understanding medical news, the best thing to do is ask your health care provider. Your doctor knows your personal medical history and can tell you whether a particular study means anything for you. Keep in mind, he or she is likely to be cautious about new research to see whether it holds true in everyday practice.
You might want to ask:
• Did you hear about this study?
• What does it mean?
• Why did the researchers conduct this trial?
• Are the results applicable to me?
• Should this change anything we are currently doing?
• Where can I find more information?