How do I know whether to believe the latest medical research findings?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
If you've noticed an uptick in oddball medical research lately, you're not imagining things. With over 900,000 studies published each year in mainstream medical journals, there are bound to be a few weird and wacky ones. Too often, the craziest science gets the splashiest media coverage. There's been a bonanza of these lately. Which would you read first: "Fiber Is Good" (true, but not news) or "Smoking Protects Your Joints" ("Wow! No way! Let me see that!").

What to believe? Start by remembering this: One study is never enough. Science is always uncovering new facts and challenging old assumptions. But the golden rule of research is that study results have to be repeatable -- at least three times, and four is better.

How can you evaluate research studies? Consider these five questions:
  • How big and how long? A marriage study that tracked 3,000 couples for 8 years is better than one involving 30 couples for 2 months.
  • Was it double-blind? The most trustworthy studies are double-blind, controlled and randomized. These three science-geek terms ensure that the results aren’t skewed. They mean that volunteers are grouped randomly, and that neither the researchers nor the volunteers know who's getting a real treatment and who's a “control” getting a fake one. That's the double-blind part. It eliminates the powers of suggestion and expectation.
  • Were real people involved? While a lot of basic science starts with test tubes and fruit flies, no responsible scientist applies those findings to humans. Ditto for results for simple surveys.
  • Where was it done? A study run by a the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major clinic or a top university medical center deserves far more attention than one done someplace you've barely heard of.
  • Who paid for it? Study funding is harder and harder to come by. So more and more sponsors are offering to kick in. But when a sponsor has a stake in the outcome -- like a drug maker, a food company, or the manufacturer of high-heeled sneakers -- the study is less likely to be unbiased.

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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.