Health news: Going beyond the headlines

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Health news: Going beyond the headlines

Photo of Scott Litin, M.D.
Scott Litin, M.D.

Pick up any newspaper or turn on your TV or computer and you're greeted by news about the latest medical breakthrough. Today's health news may even contradict yesterday's headlines. So, how do you know what to believe and what advice to follow? First, learn to go beyond the headlines to distinguish credible health news from sensationalism. Then you'll be better able to determine what health news means for you.

It isn't as difficult as it sounds. You can learn to look at health news the way doctors do, starting with knowing what questions to ask. In the following interview with Scott Litin, M.D., a practicing general internist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and editor-in-chief of the third and fourth editions of the "Mayo Clinic Family Health Book," he shares tips for deciphering the latest health news.

Every day there seems to be another news story about a new miracle cure or worrisome health threat. How do people know which are legitimate?

It's tough. Of course it's going to grab your attention when you hear on the news that you may get cancer of the pancreas if you drink coffee. The science behind the headline — or the lack of it — is never as exciting. But you have to learn to ask questions and be a bit of a skeptic in order to decide if the story is valid.

What questions should people ask themselves when they're reading health news?

As you're reading any type of health news, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is it new? Does the story provide new information, or is it just a rehash of old news? You can't always tell by the headline. Consider this recent headline: "Too much salt takes blood pressure toll." This isn't new information — we've known about the connection between salt and blood pressure for years.
  • Is it true? What evidence is the story based on? Randomized clinical trials are the gold standard for evidence. One person's opinion — even an expert's — isn't proof.
  • Will it affect you? Again, you have to look beyond the headline. The story may be about a health problem you have, but its focus might be on diagnosis not treatment. In addition, not every treatment you read about will be right for you.

What is a randomized clinical trial, and why is it superior to other research?

Clinical trials only take place after initial research, including animal studies, has shown promise. They typically involve large numbers of volunteers. Volunteers are randomized — assigned using the statistical equivalent of a coin toss — to receive either the drug being studied or a placebo, which looks just like the study drug but doesn't contain medicine. The group that receives the placebo is called the control or comparison group. For a new drug to be proved effective, people treated with it must do significantly better than those treated with the placebo.

The best clinical trials are not only randomized but also double-blind, meaning that neither the doctors nor the volunteers know who is getting the study drug or the placebo. Practices like randomizing and double-blinding help keep volunteers and researchers from possibly skewing the results because of preconceived ideas they have about the study. That makes the study's conclusions more reliable.

Are there red flags that a health story is really a sales pitch or even a scam?

The main thing to keep in mind is that just because something is in print or on the Internet doesn't necessarily make it scientific. Similarly, someone's opinion is not scientific evidence.

Beware of personal testimonials, especially if they're being used to sell a product. Scammers often target people who have serious medical problems, such as cancer or diabetes, with promises of a "miracle cure" or "revolutionary discovery." If those things were proved to be true, your doctor would know about them and discuss them with you. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Even one strong study may not be enough to warrant a treatment change. So how do advances come about in medicine?

Studies can — and often do — have conflicting results. That's why doctors usually don't rely on a single study but wait to see if additional studies arrive at the same conclusions. Progress in medicine happens in steps. Every step provides a clue to the final answer — and probably sparks some new questions as well.

People often bring stacks of pages from the Web to their doctors. Is this a bad idea, given the limited time available for most appointments?

Just because time is limited doesn't mean you shouldn't ask questions. But make the best use of the time by being selective about what you bring to your doctor's attention.

Ask yourself the three questions we talked about: Is it new? Is it true? Does it affect you? If the answer to all three is yes, by all means ask your doctor whether this development is news you can use.

Last Updated: 2010-02-02
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