Medical News: 8 Ways to Separate Fact from Fiction

cancer written in a newspaper
October 18, 2016
Amy Thompson

The latest “breakthroughs” in cancer prevention, screening, or treatment are all over the news. But how accurate is the information you’re reading? And how do you figure out if the research matters to you? Whether you’re living with cancer or are cancer-free, you need to weigh several factors before you make changes to your treatment plan or health habits based on a news story. share on twitter These 8 questions will help you separate fact from fiction:

  1. Who is reporting the news? Larger news outlets often have experienced medical reporters on staff who can analyze the research and put it into context with news that’s already out there. Websites sponsored by the government or nonprofit organizations are good sources of accurate information. While research from hospitals, universities, and cancer centers may be high quality, sometimes press releases can overstate results.
  2. If the news is based on a research study, where was the study first published? Look for research published in prestigious medical journals such as Journal of Clinical Oncology, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and Science. These publications have a rigorous peer-review process that ensures the research results are accurate and that the research was done using approved methods.
  3. Does the story report on an entire area of research or just 1 study? News stories that report on a single study often don’t adequately describe the risks, benefits, or potential long-term effects of a new treatment or finding. Remember, it takes years of collaborative research and results before there’s enough evidence to make a change to a standard of care. So while 1 study can be impressive, a good news story will consider the larger body of research, too.
  4. What kind of research is being discussed? There are many different kinds of research studies. Some look at new treatment methods; others study side effects, prevention, and more. Research on new treatments should indicate the phase of the study. The news should also describe how many people were studied in the research. Knowing this can help you see if the results may be a coincidence or actually applicable to lots of people.
  5. What type of health result does the news story report? Everyone wants to know a research study’s overall results on whether the treatment allows people to live longer. This is often shown in survival statistics. Because it can take so long to get that data, substitute statistics are sometimes used. While information such as tumor response, disease-free survival, or statistical significance is helpful, it may not reflect a medically important difference.
  6. What risk information is reported? In terms of cancer research, risk describes the chance a person will develop cancer or have the cancer recur. There are 2 types of risk reported: relative and absolute. Relative risk specifies the level of risk in a group of people with a particular risk factor compared to those without the risk factor. Absolute risk is the chance that a person will develop a disease during a specific length of time. Most research studies highlight relative risk rates, but absolute rates provide a clearer picture of the actual health risk.
  7. Does the story talk about a “breakthrough” or “miracle cure”? Don’t believe the hype. Medical research happens in small steps, not giant leaps. Breakthroughs are rare and instant treatments are few and far between. Make sure the news piece presents both the benefits and the risks of a treatment. There are nearly always side effects or downsides. And, it’s important that these are presented in context with the potential benefit.
  8. What does your health care team think? Only you and your cancer care team know your current situation. Talk with your doctor about the medical news you’re interested in and how it relates to you and your care.

Want more information? Watch the Cancer.Net Video: How to Know if Medical News is Accurate, with Jennifer Obel, MD.