Why does medicine seem to flip-flop on what is good or bad?

It can be frustrating: what is good for you one day is bad the next, or no one seems quite sure. Is butter or margarine better? How much sleep should a person really get? The answers can be unclear. Why this uncertainty? And why do medical researchers sometimes discover that widespread practices and recommendations are not correct?

Think back a couple of hundred years. Leeches were routinely used for the practice of bloodletting to “cure” sick patients. Unfortunately, many patients were weakened by the leeches rather than helped. The practice fell out of favor in Western medicine but is now making a comeback. At it turns out, leeches can be used to reduce harmful accumulations of blood after some surgeries. So medical doctors of old were onto something, but they did not have enough information to know exactly when leeches might be helpful rather than harmful.

Information about good versus bad medical practices is sorted out over the years through physician observation and research studies. Today, a researcher will pose a medical problem that needs to be answered and conduct a research study. The study follows strict professional guidelines to answer the question. Often a research study is not conclusive but will suggest areas of further study.

Once a body of research seems to support the same treatment or prevention strategy, medical professional organizations will issue guidelines for healthcare providers to follow. That is only a sketch of the process. Essentially, doctors and other healthcare providers work with what is known by medical science at the time, and they change practices as research supports new ideas. For every procedure or change of practice, medical professionals weigh benefits and risks, carefully factoring in the individual patient’s health as the primary concern. Medicine, like any profession, is an ever-evolving one.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.