Cautionary Suggestions When Interpreting Health-Related News
1. Consider the source. Truth be known, health-related information reported by a highly reliable source (e.g., the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Sports Medicine, etc.) is far more likely to be sound and straight shooting than news offered up by the plethora of groups and organizations that put forth attention-grabbing sound bites.
2. Be realistic. Keep in mind that if something seems too good to be true, it often is. Unfortunately, articles that overstate the magnitude and application of health-related news are a common occurrence. Among the red flags in this regard is the use of overworked words, such as breakthrough, dramatic proof, revolutionary discovery, astounding advance, medical milestone, etc.
3. Be wary. Studies that are cited to help sell a product should be viewed with a certain degree of healthy suspicion. Truth often is less of a priority for manufacturers and industry groups that sponsor studies than making a profit. Such entities frequently appear to do whatever it takes to portray their products in a positive light. More often than not they tend to stretch the truth to promote their products, a process that can blur the line between fact and fiction to a point where the line is indistinguishable.
4. Don’t jump to conclusions. Reaching health-related conclusions on the basis of a single study is seldom ever a sound idea. To establish the validity of a study’s results, the findings need to be confirmed by additional studies.
5. Determine the intent of the message. Health-related news often is couched in a variety of descriptive terms. Knowing the focal point of each type of term can help define and clarify what insight the news is actually offering. For example, "press releases" typically do not contain enough detail to enable readers to critically analyze the accuracy and relative merits of the reported findings. By the same token, although the term promising advances may suggest some encouraging possibilities, it does not infer that the underlying information is grounded in irrefutable science.
6. Focus on the long haul. It is essential, when interpreting health news, to see what the experts are saying about that specific topic going forward - next week, next month, next year. To a degree, the fervor that may naturally accompany the reporting of a new finding should always be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism (in the short run).
7. Look at the beef. Any effort to interpret health-related news must involve an effort to determine whether the findings and conclusions reported in the news seem to be backed by scientific evidence, rather than a series of engaging but scientifically unfounded anecdotes. As a rule, most legitimate health-related news features information that includes a citation of its sources.
8. Know what the health-related news is really saying. A number of words are commonly used when reporting scientific studies that often are misinterpreted. For example, the words indicates and suggests do not signify proves. May does not denote will. In some people does not refer to in all people. It also is important to note that quantitative terms, such as doubles the risk and triples the risk, are relative to the base level of risk. Double what? Triple what?
9. Utilize common sense. Logic and common sense often are better mechanisms for helping interpret health-related news than many of the more complex measures and tools that can be used for the same purpose. In reality, the potential application of some health-related findings is sometimes overstated. Although the health-related news may infer otherwise, the impact of a particular finding should always be subject to an analysis of the extent of its relative application.
10. Keep an open mind. If the efforts of the medical and health/fitness communities in the past two decades have proven nothing else to the world at large, it’s never say never. Discovery after discovery has enhanced the world’s awareness and understanding of how to treat and prevent many health-related problems. As such, individuals should use a balanced degree of both open-mindedness and measured optimism when interpreting health-related news.
James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
Copyright 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.