Health & Environment

Health: With studies, it’s OK to be a skeptic

A healthy dose of skepticism and a grain of salt can do the body some good when it comes to medical information — particularly the findings of medical studies.

“A lot of times they are presented in a way that is sort of sensationalizing the results, so it’s not giving the public a true picture at all,” said Dr. Iris Granek, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

Multiple factors can help determine how reliable a study is and whether it’s worth stocking up on vitamin E or scheduling time for an afternoon glass of green tea. Readers should go beyond the articles and get their hands on the study itself.

“Just because it is in a good peer-reviewed journal that’s famous doesn’t mean that the study is flawless,” Dr. Granek said. “No study is flawless.”

So even when the information comes from well-known publications like the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) or the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s important to take a good, long look.

“People have to understand who was being studied — and this is not always reported by the media,” Dr. Granek said.

One of the best ways to determine if a study applies to you is seeing if you would fit into the study group itself. “A well-conducted small study that was done in a very specific population — it’s likely the results may not apply to you,” she said.

The best kind of study is a large, randomized, double-blind trial, which is known by research experts as the “golden standard” of clinical trials.

These studies split the target population randomly, with one group receiving treatment and the other receiving a placebo — neither knowing which they are getting. Both groups are followed and studied in the same way, so data is collected objectively, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Other types of trials are often not taken as seriously, Dr. Granek said.

The studies people should consider with the most skepticism, she said, are prevention studies — the idea that something is going to prevent a condition or disease.

“That really does take a long time to study, and in the end a measure may be doing harm, so that’s where I would be cautious — jumping on the bandwagon that something is preventive,” she said.

She said studies promoting aspirin were a good example. Aspirin had a positive effect in preventing heart attack in men and stroke in women — but also proved to have the negative effect of gastrointestinal bleeding.

“So there’s always weighing the benefit over potential risk in the long run,” the doctor said.

Before starting a daily regimen of any over-the-counter medications, Dr. Granek said, it’s important to consult with a physician first.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected]. Follow her on twitter @carriemiller01.