A timely reminder that as number of studies climbs, so too does hype

Medical_studies-02.0In case health information consumers already haven’t learned to turn a jaundiced eye on the flood of “news” about the latest, greatest  medical research, the Vox news site has compiled some eye-opening charts and concrete examples to show what a fool’s errand it can be to look at a lone published study and think it describes a genuine therapeutic breakthrough.

The site’s story starts by reminding that experts in 2003 looked at 101 studies published over four years in top journals  that promised therapeutic advances.  After a decade, just five of those big deals made it to market — and only one of the 101 was still in widespread use.

That efficacy gap hasn’t acted as any kind of deterrent to the torrent of research publication, as the Vox chart shows.

The site, to be clear, isn’t aiming to debunk the value of peer-reviewed, published research that is shared widely in the medical-scientific community.

Instead, it takes aim at how media report research results, quoting a notable Harvard science historian who observes that, “There’s a big, big, difference between how the media think about news and how scientists think about news. For [journalists], what makes it news is that it’s new—and that creates a bias in the media to look for brand new results. My view would be that brand new results would be the most likely to be wrong.”

Science can be slow and tedious, Vox says, noting, “real insights don’t come by way of miraculous, one-off findings or divinely ordained eureka moments; they happen after a long, plodding process of vetting and repeating tests, and peer-to-peer discussion. The aim is to make sure findings are accurate and not the result of a quirk in one experiment or the biased crusade of a lone researcher.”

I’ve written before about health information hype and how it hurts us, by raising false expectations, especially among the sick, and potentially leading astray patients, policy-makers, and politicians. There’s a bright line between being informed and being gullible. Skepticism is vital, while cynicism is not useful.

I’ve also tried to highlight some enterprising, hype-busting sources. Healthnewsreview.org, a watchdog site about health information, is excellent. I’ve written about some experts online who poke at celebrity health blowhards, and I’ve found fun in how the gifted satirist Jon Oliver has skewered those who oversell health information.

We’ll all keep our fingers crossed for genuine medical progress. But we won’t bite for junk reports.

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