Too Good to Be True? Dissecting Health in the News

 

If you’re like me and watch the nightly news, you’ll notice that there is almost always at least one new health topic being discussed.   “Revolutionary studies” such as ones that show coffee “causes” cancer can be very misleading.

Seeing headlines for new health studies can be very frustrating for researchers, especially those in the public health community.  Articles show causation when there is not really a direct link between an exposure (ex. coffee) and the disease (ex. cancer).  My training in graduate school is centered around being skeptical of results and constantly wanting more information.  Through this mentality, I have learned to take a closer look at what the data really shows.  It can be very difficult to do this when the news only gives a brief overview and you have to go digging for the journal article.  So rather than sending you all on hunts to find the original research study, I’ve got some tips on how to better understand health news.

 

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First: Does it sound too good to be true?

So many times there are articles written about how chocolate is great for heart health or they have developed a cancer vaccine, but what we do not get in the news with these headlines are the weaknesses in the studies. (trust me, I want my chocolate addiction to be healthy for me too).  Often times, the media will hear of a new study that comes out, skims the abstract, and will draw their own conclusion.  THIS IS EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC, and here’s why:

Say you are skimming the headlines on your news app and come across this: Ibuprofen Linked to Male Infertility.  Your instant fear, if you are a man and ever hope to have kids, is that you need to stop taking Ibuprofen right now.  But what is not disclosed in the news article is that only 31 people were studied.

A major topic in my courses is accurate sampling.  A good sample should be large enough to include people that are representative of the population you are looking at (in this case people of reproductive age), and should include a balance of people who are exposed (those who take the Ibuprofen) and people who are unexposed (those who do not take Ibuprofen).  If you have too small of a sample size, you are at risk of having results that are due to random chance and not actual causation.  It is helpful to pay attention to who was studied and why.  So in this study, while they found an “association” between ibuprofen use and decreased fertility, there is a lot more research to be done before you can conclude that male infertility is “caused” by ibuprofen use.

Second: How many studies have been done on this topic?

Through my public health training so far, I have been taught to be very weary when it comes to breakthrough studies (something done for the very first time).  Why you might ask? Because it is so easy for data analysts to manipulate statistics to get the association they want to see.  How can they do this? Well its quite simple, see in biostatistics, we can run any number of tests to determine an association between two variables.  But the problem is not every test is appropriate for every study, and different tests will possibly give you different associations.  If after multiple studies on a topic have been published and they have similar results, then it can be safe to assume those results are believable.

Third: Is the research trustworthy?

The most popular example of taking a study completely out of context and the media running with incorrect conclusions is the study that showed vaccines “cause” autism.  While this study has been widely disproven, and the author of the original paper has had his medical license revoked, people still have a huge mistrust in vaccines.  Yet, here’s the thing, vaccines save lives.  Do you know anyone that has been diagnosed with Polio? No? Thank vaccines for that.  But because of the media taking the study to the extreme, it has caused many parents to discontinue their children’s vaccination schedule.

The danger of only hearing headlines regarding health in the news is that the research could come from an illegitimate source.  The research could be full of bias and draw conclusions that when further studied are not true.  So next time you see that coffee causes cancer, take a step back and find out more information about who did the study before cutting coffee out of your life.

I want to end by saying that not all health news is bad news.  Health in the news is actually a good thing because it sparks conversations between people.  I can only hope that in the future, health news will do a better job at translating the science into terms and concepts that the public can better comprehend.  If you really want to be a nerd like me, you’ll start looking up the actual journal articles that are featured on the news.  And remember, it’s ok to be skeptical of what you see on the news, it means you are taking the time to really educate yourself!

As Albert Einstein said: “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

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