Sorting the Treasure from the Junk in Medical Science News

There’s a lot of health news noise out there, as we regularly point out (for example, here and here).

Readers of (HNR) have a leg up on everyone else when it comes to sorting the noise from the news about medicine and health. The site’s mission is to improve the public dialogue “about health care by helping consumers critically analyze claims about health care interventions …”

One of HNR’s initiatives is the “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook,” whose guidelines we offer here in the hope of enabling you to be a more critical thinker whenever a news outlet serves up the latest health dish.

  • Watch out for single-source stories. They’re usually based on a news release, which will have a hidden agenda.
  • Beware of stories that don’t mention cost. It’s crucial information; if the cost of the great, new treatment is out of reach, it’s not that great, is it?
  • Headline percentages are misleading. If something “reduces your risk of X by 50%,” chances are that number doesn’t mean what you think it means. (See Patrick’s newsletter, “The One Medical Statistic You Need to Know.”).
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a report presents only or primarily the benefits of a new treatment, it’s a bad report. ALL health-care interventions have trade-offs.
  • Patient anecdotes are not data. Beware of stories that rely on them. Anecdotes are used to compensate for data that are unavailable or flawed.
  • A “simple screening test” is never simple. The decision to take one is one of the most complex and difficult decisions a health consumer can make.
  • Watch for hyperbolic language. “Breakthrough,” “first of its kind” and “game-changer” are red flags. When you read “it may become …,” substitute “it may not become.”
  • New isn’t always better. Often the latest test, treatment or procedure is no better than what exists, just pricier.
  • Beware of disease-mongering. Risk factors, symptoms for diseases or data can be exaggerated in a way that causes needless worry, and expense.
  • The latest treatment may not exist yet, or ever. “Awaiting FDA approval” or “in pre-clinical trial phase” means it’s still a pipe dream.
  • There is a leap from mice to men. Getting from rodent trials to human use is a very, very long road that might lead nowhere.
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