I was talking with a friend who was describing a research study about the brains of criminals. The researcher had concluded the brains were different, which prompted me to ask, “well did he have a matched control group?” My friends was quick to reply, “I’m sure he did what he was supposed to do because he was at the NIH [National Institutes of Health].” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that where the researchers work, or even what journal a research article appeared in, isn’t a 100% percent guarantee of findings.
When I was in college, for my final exam in experimental design, we were given articles from two well respected medical journals and asked to evaluate the studies. Needless to say, we found lots of room for improvement.
That being noted, there are times that researchers publish “quick and dirty” research findings because they want feedback before they invest in larger trials. With the advent of the internet, as well as other media outlets, these studies can be widely distributed. Therefore before you make a change in treatment plans, or make health decision based on a research study, here are some ways to evaluate the study:
• Where did you learn about the study?
• Was the study in animals or people? As interesting as findings can be in a rat, or other animals, clinical trials in humans can yield very different findings.
• How many people were involved in the study? When it comes to chronic disease, studies need to have large populations and continue for an extended period of time. The goal is to ensure that observed differences are not the result of chance.
• Does the study include people like you? Ages, gender, stage of disease, ethnic groups and life style (e.g. active vs sedentary) of those studied can impact findings.
• Was it a randomized control group used? Using a “control group”-which is matched in age and other characteristics to the group undergoing treatment-is the gold standard for research. However, it is expensive and so not always used.
• If a new medication was being tested, were there side effects reported?
• Who funded the study? Researchers are required to disclose where their funding comes from. If it’s a large study, with matched controls, from a reputable institution, chances are the findings are ones that you can trust.
• Have there been similar studies? If so, what were the results? Were they the same or different?
Before making changes, discuss it with your treating medical provider.