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Health Feature Articles

Making Sense of Health Reports in the News

Gail Carlson, MPH Ph.D., State Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

U.S. Adults follow health news closely. Health stories can change people’s health decisions and behaviors and their use of health care. Unfortunately, health stories often confuse complex issues and rarely provide individuals with enough information to make a good decision about their health or health care. Rather than providing accurate information, health stories frequently raise expectations for cures and treatments that are not yet available, raise doubts about effective treatments, prevention measures, and medications and cause unnecessary fear and worry.

In most cases, journalists and health professionals want to provide accurate and relevant information. However, there are barriers to making that happen. Journalists don’t always have the knowledge or skills needed to understand the results of medical research. Health researchers, on the other hand, don’t always see the value in using the media to inform health consumers about study results and frequently don’t have the time or patience to describe their research in understandable terms. At times, researchers use journalists in the wrong way by providing the media with preliminary results from studies or results from unpublished research. Journalists also face demands from editors for sensational or newsworthy stories, they lack time and space to develop stories fully and there is competition among journalists. Recognition comes from being the first to break an important story. Legitimate journalists must also compete with those who intentionally discredit the results of legitimate studies for personal or financial gain.

Next time you read or hear a health story in the news ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the news story a summary of a number of research studies or a report on one study?
    One study doesn't tell you very much. Changing your behavior based on one study is never a good idea. Before recommending a treatment or prevention measure, government agencies and health associations study a body of evidence to see if it supports the recommendation. Researchers are expected to repeat studies many times with different populations and in different formats. Good health news will tell you how the results of a particular study compare with the results of similar studies. Health news that does not make this comparison causes confusion and uncertainty and may lead people to make unwise health decisions. When the findings of a particular study don’t support the existing body of evidence, the study itself might be flawed or it might be pointing to a new direction for future research. Scientists don’t jump to conclusions based on one study and neither should you. Study the issue and watch for new developments, but don’t immediately change your behavior unless your health care provider recommends that you do.
  • Does the news story tell you what kind of study was done?
    Some types of studies provide health care providers and consumers with more useful information than others. Laboratory experiments carried out in test tubes or on animals can not be applied directly to humans. Epidemiological studies watch large groups of people over time and provide useful information about possible links between a disease and risk factors, for example the link between heart disease and smoking. These types of studies, however, don’t show a cause-and-effect relationship. Clinical trials, on the other hand, can be used to show that one factor leads to, or causes, another. Clinical trials are done under carefully controlled conditions and follow detailed written plans that explain how the study will be conducted. All types of studies including clinical trials have their limitations. This is one of the reasons why medical recommendations are based on more than one study.
  • Does the news story tell you how large the study was and who the participants were?
    A good health story will report how many people were involved in a study and who was involved -- gender, race, age, and other characteristics that might have an impact on a study. This kind of information can help an individual decide if the study results are likely to relate to his/her life situation. For example, you are a 70 year-old male with a history of heart disease. Your health care provider is recommending that you have a new by-pass procedure. You agree to have the procedure after your provider tells you that the recommendation is based on five studies involving 5,000 males between the ages of 55 and 80 with a history of heart disease. What if your provider had told you that the recommendation was based on one study involving 50 healthy males between the ages of 40 and 45? You probably would have been more skeptical about the recommendation. Be wary of news stories and advertising that highlight one or two individuals’ success with a treatment and suggest that it is “proof” that it will work for every one else.
  • Does the news story present statistics in a useful and honest way?
    Many people don’t trust statistics. When used incorrectly they lead to misleading conclusions. A headline shouts, “X Doubles the Risk of Z”. That sounds very scary. But if your chance of getting Z is 1 in a million, than doubling your risk means your chance of getting Z is 2 in 1,000,000; probably not scary at all. New stories are more likely to report relative risk (double the risk) than absolute risk (increased risk from one to two in a million) because the numbers sound more sensational. Good health stories will use statistics carefully, provide an explanation of statistics that are used and when possible provide exact numbers for the treatment group and the control group. Exact numbers can make it easier for individuals to do their own comparisons of the groups.
  • Does the news story tell you where the study was published and when?
    Research that has been published in reputable medical journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association goes through a peer-review process before it is published. Articles are carefully reviewed by other health care professionals and researchers for mistakes or problems with study design that might make the findings questionable. The peer review process does not guarantee that a study is reliable but it does provide some protection against poor quality research. When news stories report on preliminary findings and unpublished studies they may not have gone through this review process and questions are raised about the trustworthiness of study results. A good health story will also include information about when the study was published. We are learning more about our bodies and our health all the time; as more in learned recommendations can change. If information is more than 3 years old, look for something more recent.

Increasingly, individuals are being asked to take an active role in their health and health care. An important skill is learning to read between the lines of news stories. That means being able to sort through sometimes confusing and contradictory information, knowing how to identify accurate information, and determining if information, even when accurate, applies to your situation. If a health story in the news raises any doubts in your mind about a drug or treatment that you are currently using talk to your health care provider. Be suspicious of advice that sounds too good to be true. Be wary of advice provided by “experts” who say they can do what conventional or traditional health professionals can’t. Take time to study the issue and use recommendations that are likely to give you the best return for your effort. Avoid jumping from one recommendation to another based on the results of single studies or choosing to do nothing because of seemingly conflicting advice; neither approach is good for your health.



Floria, B. (2003) Making Sense of Medical Advice. Let’s Talk. Department of Health and Human, Office of Federal Occupational Health
Larsson, A. Oxman, AD. Carling, C. and Herrin, J. (2003) Medical messages in the media – barriers and solutions to improving medical journalism Health Expectations, 6, 323-331
Malpani, A. (2004) Health Headlines: Making Sense of Medical Stories in the News. In How to Get the Best Medical Care UBS Publishing
Schwartz, LM & Woloshin S. (2004) The Media Matter: A Call for Straightforward Medical Reporting. Annual of Internal Medicine 140 (3) 226-228
Tennen, M. (2004) Medical Breakthrough Or Junk Science? Health AtoZ
The Therapeutic Initiative (1996) Evidence Based Drug Therapy: What Do the Numbers Mean? Therapeutics Letter, 15 (Aug-Oct.) Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia



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Last Updated 05/05/2009