What Health Research Articles Can You Believe?

Joe Paduda

Posted 3/3/12 on Managed Care Matters

There’s a lot of mindless blather in the media about scientific studies on health that purport to say this or that about something or other – much of it confusing, contradictory, and/or outright wrong.

While a lot is just sloppy journalism, there’s quite a bit that can be attributed to bias; physicians and/or researchers on the payroll of a specific company or industry conduct and/or report on research that is favorable to their financial supporter. Roy Poses and Gary Schwitzer have been two of the most prominent voices focused on this issue, and both have done exemplary work not only identifying individual examples of biased “research” but in calling for a higher standard of reporting by all members of the media.

Roy’s work exposing the influence of big money on academic medicine is exemplary.

That’s not to say that some of these advocates aren’t honorable and well-intentioned folks, and some of the research reports and/or advocacy positions are well-developed, legitimate and quite useful.

The tough work is identifying which ones are reliable and which may be less so. One resource is Gary’s list of experts with no links to purveyors of medical devices, medications, and/or treatment. 

Journalists seeking an unbiased, critical opinion can likely find someone on his list who can provide the straight scoop on the latest claim about peach pits, botox, or mercury toxicity.

A better bet may be to understand what makes for good research, and what’s not – and why, and how reporters can (unintentionally, one hopes) mischaracterize health research in such a way as to mislead the reader.

Here’s one example; a NYT article on treating baldness reported on “treating” male hair loss by transplanting hair from the patients’ legs to their head. Schwitzer critiqued the piece as “observational with a sample of two patients, it misses nearly all of our measures and allows the author of the study to provide readers with a 777 word advertisement.” [emphasis added]

Ouch.To answer my headline question, I’d say “yes, but check to see who the “experts” cited by the articles are and where they make their money.”

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