How to read articles about health and healthcare
By Dr Alicia White
‘If you’ve just read a health-related headline that’s caused you to spit out your morning coffee (“Coffee causes cancer” usually does the trick) it’s always best to follow the Blitz slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. On reading further you’ll often find the headline has left out something important, like “Injecting five rats with really highly concentrated coffee solution caused some changes in cells that might lead to tumours eventually. (Study funded by The Association of Tea Marketing.)”
The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”. It is there to draw you into buying the paper and reading the story. Would you read an article called “Coffee pretty unlikely to cause cancer, but you never know”? Probably not.
Before spraying your newspaper with coffee in the future, you need to interrogate the article to see what it says about the research it is reporting on. Bazian (the company I work for) has interrogated hundreds of articles for Behind The Headlines on NHS Choices, and we’ve developed the following questions to help you figure out which articles you’re going to believe, and which you’re not. It’s not possible to cover all the questions that need to be asked about research studies in a short article, but we’ve covered some of the major ones.
- Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
- Is the article based on a conference abstract?
- Was the research in humans?
- How many people did the research study include?
- Did the study have a control group?
- Did the study actually assess what’s in the headline?
- Who paid for and conducted the study?