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Medical Information in the News: Can You Trust What You Read?

By Cecily Jenkins, Ph.D., UCSD Shiley Marcos Alzheimer's Disease Research Center

Read the newspaper.Watch television or surf the internet. Medical information abounds. Some is scientifically sound, some based on opinion, and some is incomplete or even misrepresented. Evaluating the credibility of reports is very challenging for the unprepared consumer. The following questions can help you become "information literate."

Where does the information come from?

PEER-REVIEWED JOURNALS: Articles published in reputable peer-reviewed journals are the most respected source of information, as the work has been reviewed by other qualified members of the profession. Ask a professional if you have difficulty understanding the results and conclusions from these articles.

  • Government agencies (ending in .gov)
  • National nonprofit organizations (ending in .org)
  • Medical specialty groups, and university medical centers (ending in .edu)

Web addresses ending in .com may have valuable information, but many are commercial sites designed to sell you something.

SOME REPUTABLE WEBSITES ON ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE INCLUDE:

WWW.ALZ.ORG - Alzheimer's Association website

WWW.NIA.NIH.GOV/ALZHEIMERS - Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center of the National Institute on Aging

WWW.CLINICALTRIALS.GOV - National Institutes of Health website about federally and privately supported clinical research, including information about specific trials and recent study results

WWW.MEDLINEPLUS.GOV - a service of the US National Library of Medicine, this website archives health news from the last 30 days, drug information for both prescription and nonprescription medications, a medical encyclopedia and a link list of health libraries, databases and resources

TV AND PRINT: Most reporters are journalists rather than experts in the medical field. Very preliminary medical findings may be released in the news prematurely and with sensational impact. Go to a professional website to evaluate further.

Be especially cautious about information that is based solely on opinion or personal experience. Phrases such as “miraculous treatment” and “cure,” and claims that a product treats a wide range of ailments, is available from only one source, or only for a limited time are generally aimed at selling you something.

How definite is the reported finding?

The type, size, phase and duration of the study are important, as is the repeatability of a finding. A positive result from a single study is exciting. The same positive result across multiple studies is convincing!

The gold standard for scientific research has traditionally been a type of experimental study in which participants are randomly assigned to either an experimental or a control group. Neither the participants nor the research evaluators know which person is in which group until the study is completed. Known as a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial, this type of study is rigorous and is able to establish with the greatest degree of certainty whether a given factor likely caused a specific outcome.

Treatment studies known as human clinical trials, are experimental studies specifically focused on treatments that appear promising in preliminary laboratory and animal studies. Clinical trials are usually conducted in distinct phases, each being a necessary step toward FDA approval of the treatment option. In evaluating information from results of clinical trials, the phase of investigation will give you some idea of how much is known about the treatment being studied and whether it will likely be submitted for FDA approval in the near future.

  • Phase I Clinical Trials - Is the treatment SAFE?
  • Phase II Clinical Trials - Does it work?
  • Phase III Clinical Trials - Is it better than what’s already available?

Is the information current?

Television and newspaper are media forms geared toward time-sensitive reporting, so the currency of information is generally not in question. When gathering information on the internet, however, be sure to check whether the web page you are viewing has been updated recently because outdated information can remain on the internet for a very long time.

Does the information apply to me?

Consider who participated in the study of interest and how they were recruited. If, for example, individuals with specific health problems were excluded from participating in a study, then study findings may be limited to those who do not have the excluded health conditions. Those unaware of this limitation may place themselves in danger if they use such a treatment.

Remember that medical information conveyed in the media is not a substitute for professional health care! Gather information freely but cautiously, and always discuss any questions about treatment options with your physician.