EXPERT COLUMN: UNDERSTANDING MEDICAL RESEARCH

Introduction to Clinical Research – How to Spot Good Stuff

Kelsey Ricci, MA
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June 01, 2017  | Last Updated: June 01, 2017

 

In the modern era of technological and medical advancements, consumers are bombarded with information about the ‘latest and greatest’ in healthcare choices. There is a push for medicine that is tailored to each individual and also a call for personal responsibly in making informed decisions. Often these decisions require navigating through clinical trial results that are published in medical journals and then summarized by a third party media outlet. How do consumers tease out the reputable research from the bombastic headlines?

 

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The first step is to develop an understanding of the scientific process. At its core, medical research is simply a controlled observation of a specific question. Scientists establish the protocol constraints, collect data in an unbiased manner, and watch and wait for trends to develop. Through statistical analyses researchers assert the conclusions, regardless of the hypothesis or expected outcome.

This process takes time, often over the course of years or decades. Small studies replicate and expand upon previous work, building towards a larger understanding of a medical condition or problem. Over time, large-scale patterns emerge and provide the new foundation upon which future research will be rooted. However, trends can take generations to become apparent, and by then concurrent medical practice may have advanced beyond the scope of the initial question. A study may also challenge an existing truth, making researchers pause and reevaluate the direction of their work.

Scientists aim to make claims that can be generalized to the population as a whole. This requires an adequate number of participants (the sample size) to assert with statistical confidence that a finding did not happen by chance. Questioning if enough people participated in a study or whether the results apply to the average person will help verify its strength.

The observation of the study questions must also occur in a real-world setting that is constantly influenced by myriad environmental and epidemiological changes, and the unpredictability of these external influences keeps researchers on their toes. Consequently, consumers must question the validity of research findings presented in the media, especially when it impacts their medical care. Some may not explore a given medical topic until it becomes relevant to them and may then interpret a research finding based on personal bias: “I want this treatment to work, so I’m going to read the research that supports it.” Instead, one should actively strive to view the results from different angles.

This may be daunting for those without a science or mathematics background. A scientific paper is often laden with jargon, medical acronyms, and dense paragraphs outlining the technical – and often dull – details of the trial. Most people have daily responsibilities keeping them from diving into medical tomes to brush up on current research. Patients also feel confident that their medical provider will review relevant research and explain it succinctly on their behalf. While these limitations may be true, readers are quite capable of understanding the nuances of clinical trials if given the proper tools.

When perusing articles online, start with the source. Which media outlet is reporting the recent scientific finding and do they have a clear bias? (Answer: They shouldn’t!) If the claims are posed as sensationalized titles, stay away. Just because a headline states declaratively that “new research shows a breakthrough finding” does not mean it is true. Also check that the body of the article includes a link or an actual reference for the manuscript, typically in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Readers can go directly to the original article and skim the abstract to see if the study is being presented in a balanced manner. Be wary if you have a difficult time finding a mention of the actual research in a news article, as a reputable publication will properly cite its source so readers can independently verify the claims.

The benefit to having clinical trial results readily available far outweighs the downside of the seeming overabundance of information. Readers should take the initiative to inform their healthcare decisions by using clearly-outlined tools to navigate medical literature; then they must ignore the noise. The burden of being informed falls on both the researcher and the healthcare consumer: scientists must adapt to real-time advances, and consumers must sort through the subsequent opinions. When the lay reader begins to challenge empirical research, the union between the patient and the science is strengthened.

 

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