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Making sense of medical studies reported in the news

August 18, 2010

“Have you heard the latest research?” A new study claims taking aspirin will reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer recurrence after treatment. How about the one that says coffee could help prevent cancer, while other studies have shown the popular elixir raises your blood pressure? And what about all the conflicting reports on Vitamin B?


Today, more than ever, the public is bombarded with news of scientific advances in medicine, and it’s difficult to make sense out of all the conflicting studies. What’s more, the hottest news stories aren’t necessarily the most important breakthroughs, according to Dr. David Rose, chief of General Medicine and Geriatrics at Baystate Medical Center.


“I’ve had patients tell me they are so frustrated from information overload because every day they read something in the newspaper or hear something on the radio or television that tells them if they want to live a longer, healthier, happier life, then they should do this or that,” said Dr. Rose.


And the information overload affects medical providers, too. “As doctors, we’re faced with thousands of research articles in various specialty journals – so it’s not only the patients who have to struggle to interpret these things,” he added.


However, one advantage doctors have over the public in finding and absorbing the research that really counts is their background in epidemiology, and the fact that they are trained to be skeptical and how to make sense of scientific studies.


“Our tools of skepticism are rooted in evidence-based medicine. I also talk with my patients about being skeptical about new treatments, and I talk with them about the safety, risks and benefits, and the costs associated with some of these new study therapies,” said Dr. Rose.


“Doctors can’t and don’t instantly change their practices every time a study is published. If we did, the results would be really confusing to our patients and the public, who are very sophisticated today about healthcare, and we could actually be doing them a lot of harm. But what we can do for our patients is to keep our eyes and ears open and stay interested in the topic and follow it over time to see whether or not it really becomes something worthwhile,” he added.


The Baystate physician said ultimately doctors have to ask themselves, “Was this a well-conducted study, one whose evidence is weighted enough to change my practices with my patients with this particular disease?”


As for the wisdom of turning to the Internet for advice on the latest healthcare treatments, Dr. Rose said there is “a mix of good science and bad, to be found alongside opinions that come from authorities as well as those without any reputable credentials.”


“When my patients come to me saying they saw something on the Internet, I spend time talking with them about it,” said Dr. Rose, who also offers them suggestions as to where to turn for reliable online guidance.


Dr. Rose recommends websites he considers to be of high quality, such as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, and the websites of professional societies such as the American College of Physicians, which provides information for both doctors and the public.


At Baystate Medical Center, a teaching hospital and the western campus of Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. Rose and other faculty are passing on their knowledge, teaching residents and medical students how to address the most recent studies with their patients when they become doctors in their own right.