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Conflicting research studies: how do I know what’s true?

Consumers often express frustration with new research findings reported to them by the media.  One day a medicine is being promoted on TV as the cure for arthritis pain, the next it is being removed from the market by the FDA, citing increased risk of death.  One day margarine is considered a healthy alternative to butter, the next day trans fats are being banned from entire states.  And so medical research is eyed with suspicion and people are left to wonder about the safety of their food, medications and treatments.

I sympathize with the confusion and frustration.   Here’s part of what fuels it:

1)  Clinical trials are designed to answer very specific questions under a set of limited conditions. They have to be designed this way in order to prove a cause and effect.  The results should be repeatable, given the same conditions.  Sometimes when a drug is used in a different way (like, at a higher dose or for a longer period of time, or in older patients) it has different or more frequent side effects.  It’s important not to generalize efficacy or safety to use cases outside those tested in a clinical trial.  What’s good for the goose is NOT necessarily good for the gander.

2)  Large observational studies can often pick up trends that might not have been noted in a clinical trial. This is why previously unknown (or rare) side effects are sometimes detected after clinical trials seem to indicate that a drug or treatment is safe and effective.

3)  We are all tempted to over-simplify research data, especially the media. How many of us would like to read a headline that says, “Drug X may reduce your arthritis pain by 10% if you are over 80, have no history of high blood pressure or diabetes, use it 3 times a day at 10mg doses and take it on an full stomach” versus “Drug X can cure your arthritis!”  Yup, we just want something easy to understand, and so we opt for statement #2, even though it’s not accurate.  Inaccurate statements generate a lot of confusion and lead to unwarranted hype.

So, what is a consumer to do? My opinion is that the educated consumer’s best friend is an educated physician.  Doctors are natural skeptics – they are formally trained (for a minimum of 7-10 years at good schools) to understand the limitations of research studies and effectively communicate all the caveats that are so critical for informed decision making.  If you’re having a hard time figuring out if a drug or treatment is right for you, ask your doctor (wow, did that sound like a TV ad!)  Or better yet, keep reading the physician blogs and medical news commentary at Revolution Health.  We are committed to translating research news into a format that you can understand and use.  We’ll do our best to cut through the hype and give you the real facts.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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