Using Healthy Skepticism in the Information Age

One day newspaper headlines herald a study that finds drinking coffee protects against cancer. An Internet search reveals a different study with evidence that the brew is bad for you. In this age of instant and ever-changing information, what’s a wise woman to think? When it comes to medical matters, view all data with enlightened suspicion, advises Women’s Care physician, Doug Austin, MD.

“Technology is wonderful and has advanced medical science and the availability of the latest information tremendously,” says Dr. Austin. “But science depends upon a set of controlled conditions at a particular time. In reality, it’s always evolving.”

How, then, can one discern fact from fiction when it comes to almost-daily conflicting reports of new cures, treatments and preventive health measures?

Dr. Austin says there are keys to becoming more enlightened, but still skeptical, when it comes to medical information.

First and foremost, he advises, read the study, not the summary. “Pay close attention to the ‘Methods’ section,” he says. “Do you fit into the experimental group? If you do, the study has much more power in helping to decide treatment for you. Also, while a study’s outcome may be statistically significant, is it clinically—or practically—significant?”

With a proliferation of so-called scientific reviews on every topic from asthma (how to prevent it) to zinc (does it really shorten the common cold?), it’s also a good idea to ask your doctor for guidance in deciding which medical studies or reports are relevant for you.

Dr. Austin provides these tips to bear in mind when reviewing medical information:

Is the information from a reputable source that provides balanced coverage and distinguishes between preliminary and conclusive results? Stories that discuss the pros and cons of the findings, related research, and the views of others in the field are more credible than those that just sensationalize the results. The most reliable data are likely to come from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration, or from respected scientific journals that require a peer review of submitted reports.

What is the goal of the trial or study? Distinguish between health sources with a conflict of interest or a bias, and those that primarily provide health information.

What are the numbers and how conclusive are the findings? Many clinical trials have just 50, 100, or 500 people participating, so a problem that may occur only one in 1,000 times is unlikely to show up in a clinical trial. In addition, it’s wise to ask if the data are consistent with earlier findings and if the results have been replicated in other studies.

Who sponsored the trial or commissioned the report? Before accepting the information, ask yourself if there is a potential conflict of interest between the sponsors and the results.

Are the reports about real people with real diseases or are they preliminary results obtained from studies conducted in laboratory animals? Although animal studies provide clues about the mechanism of a particular illness or treatment, results can’t be definitively translated to humans until human trials are conducted.

“As we say at Women’s Care, knowledge is power,” notes Dr. Austin. “But it’s essential to make sure that knowledge is based on credible information. Exercising healthy skepticism is essential in the information age.”