FAQs: Medical Studies in the News

Anyone who reads newspapers, surfs the internet, or watches TV is likely aware of the prevalence of conflicting medical studies. An obvious example is food studies: Eggs, once believed to be dangerously high in cholesterol, are now considered a health food; margarine, once a healthy alternative to butter, is now known to contain potentially dangerous trans fats and has been put on the "avoid" list. The same holds for many drugs and medical devices, as some studies raise alarms about risks while others underscore benefits.

Sometimes, these reports can be the source of good solid information about the latest medical advancements, helping consumers safeguard their own health or the health of others. But just as often, results from these studies can be exaggerated, misinterpreted, or overgeneralized, or they may be based on flawed or inconclusive research.

In sorting through the confusion, it’s important to realize that the latest study is often just that—the latest in a long series of findings. Each new finding represents a puzzle piece, not the final word.

It’s important that you never stop taking your medication because of something you heard or read in the media or online. Always consult your doctor before stopping your medication or altering your treatment. Not all claims are substantiated, and you could suffer potentially dangerous side effects if you suddenly stop taking medication prescribed to you.

Questions to ask about health headlines

To help you sort out the significance of new studies, here are some questions to ask:

Q: Where was the study published?

A: Typically, doctors pay the most attention to studies published in research journals that have been peer-reviewed, i.e., studies that have been vetted by experts in the field who are peers of the researchers who conducted and wrote the study. Well-known, peer-reviewed journals include The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Journal of the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (JSCAI), and The Lancet, among many others.

Q: Who conducted the study?

A: Large clinical studies conducted by the unbiased university or government researchers, especially those from prestigious academic medical institutions or science-based government organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tend to be more highly regarded in the medical community than studies conducted by researchers representing an organization with a vested interest in the outcome of the study.

Q: What population of people participated in the study?

A: Many studies focus on a very specific population of people to determine outcomes. It’s important to determine the general characteristics of the study participants, as the study results may not be the best indicator of how a medication or device may work for you.

Q: What were the protocols of the study?

A: Generally speaking, studies have more credibility in the medical community if they’re randomized, based on extensive and diverse populations of participants, have carefully established control groups, and are blinded to participants, researchers, or both.

Q: Who sponsored the trial?

A: Clinical trials are sponsored or funded by a variety of organizations or individuals such as doctors, medical institutions, foundations, voluntary groups, and medical device or pharmaceutical companies, in addition to federal agencies such as the CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Federally sponsored trials tend to carry the most weight due to their large size and lack of vested interest in the result.

Q: What does my doctor think?

A: If you think a new study may have relevance for your health or the health of a loved one, ask your doctor about it—your personal doctor knows the most about your health and is the best person to help you sort out the issues.