Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: How to Know When Medical News is Accurate, adapted from this content.
Watch the Cancer.Net Video: How to Know if Medical News is Accurate, with Jennifer Obel, MD, adapted from this content.
Medical news can change often; one week, a new "breakthrough" is discovered, only to be disputed the next week. As a result, it is difficult to know what news to believe and whether a person should change a practice or specific habit. Finding answers to the following questions may help you better evaluate medical news.
Does the news story represent an entire area of research, or is it just reporting on one study?
Typically, news articles explaining only one study cannot adequately describe the risks or benefits of a new treatment or finding, nor do they examine the long-term effects of the research. Most doctors don't recommend changing your health habits based on one study. Talk with your doctor or a member of your health care team if you have questions about a particular study.
How does this new information fit within the larger body of research on the topic?
Health care professionals usually do not change their standard of care based on one study. Although scientific papers are written at each step of the research process, it generally takes years of research, with many different studies performed at different institutions, before there is enough evidence to adopt a new therapy or change current practice.
Where was the news article reported?
Established news outletsâsuch as national and large regional newspapers and network television stationsâusually have science and medical reporters on staff. In general, these reporters are experienced in analyzing medical information and strive to cover the news as accurately as possible, putting the information in context with previous research. Smaller news outlets may pick up stories after they have been run nationally. Although many of these outlets provide quality reporting, some of them may cut important information to save space or time.
If the news article is based on a research study, where was the study originally published?
The most prestigious medical journals—including the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Science, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology—use a rigorous, peer-review process that requires articles submitted for publication to be reviewed by others working in the same field. Those experts evaluate the studies for accuracy, importance, and the ability to reproduce the results. However, just because the medical article was published in a leading journal doesn't mean you should assume the research changes standard practices.
What phase was the research?
If the research was done with tissue cultures or animals, there is no reason to apply the findings to your daily life just yet. Tissue cultures and animals are used as models to better understand how a treatment may work, but they aren't reliable substitutes for how a treatment works in people. A research study involving people is called a clinical trial.
There are distinct phases of clinical trials. The goal of a phase I clinical trial is to prove that a new drug or treatment, which has proven to be safe for use in animals, may also be given safely to humans. A phase II clinical trial is designed to provide more detailed information about the safety of the treatment, in addition to evaluating whether the new treatment is effective for a specific cancer. The goal of a phase III clinical trial is to take a new treatment that has shown promising results when used to treat a small number of patients with a particular disease and compare it with the current standard of care for that specific disease.
Information from a phase III clinical trial may change current health care practice, but results from phase I and phase II clinical trials are preliminary. Learn more about the phases of clinical trials.
What type of statistics does the news article report?
Most research studies highlight relative risk rates, although absolute rates provide a clearer picture of the actual health risk. Relative risk specifies the level of risk in a group of people with a particular risk factor, compared with those who do not have that risk factor. Absolute risk is the chance (usually measured as a percentage) that a person will develop a disease during a given time.
Both relative risk and absolute risk are useful in understanding whether an individual's risk is higher or lower than the general population. However, most studies report relative risk, which makes the results seem more important than they are. Learn more about risk and risk factors for cancer.
What type of health result does the news article report?
The rate of overall survival is the result of most interest in research studies. However, it can take a long time to learn that result, so researchers may use a substitute measurement, such as tumor response (whether the tumor shrinks in response to treatment) and disease-free survival (the length of time after treatment during which a person survives with no sign of the disease). When these substitute measurements are used, remember that positive findings may not translate into an actual improvement in overall survival. In addition, a study may report on the statistical significance of a new treatment, although it may not be medically important. For example, a benefit of a new treatment may be statistically significant if it improves five-year survival from 50% to 51% in a large clinical trial. However, this statistical difference may not be a medically important difference if the new treatment causes severe side effects.
In addition to these questions, consider these warning signs that a news article may be overplaying a medical study.
The news story uses the word "breakthrough." The process of scientific exploration usually happens in small steps, not giant leaps. Breakthroughs in medicine are rare.
The study promises a “magic bullet.” Unfortunately, magic bulletsâtreatments that prevent or cure a diseaseâare few and far between. The invention of penicillin to treat bacterial infections and the creation of the polio vaccine are examples of magic bullets. However, it is unlikely that a complex disease such as cancer, which is actually many different diseases, will be cured with a single treatment.
The article is one-sided. A news article should be balanced and present the benefits and risks of the topic. A new cancer treatment rarely helps all patients.
The best way to learn whether a cancer news story is relevant to you is to talk with your doctor or another member of your health care team. He or she can help you put the new study in the context of your situation.
Last Updated: April 07, 2011