The majority of the general public in the UK tend to access their health industry news through mainstream media outlets. But is it always wise to trust the stories behind the often sensationalised news headlines?
Here are some useful tips on how to approach reading health news.
Is the news source credible?
The internet can be a great source of information but it can also prove to be a tricky place to navigate, especially when looking for credible news sources.
If you are specifically looking for health industry news then you might want to limit your search to government organisations (.gov), reputable medical schools (.ac), not-for-profit organisations (.org) and well-known professional bodies.
Anyone with access to the internet can post articles on any subject and, with a little know-how, make a professional-looking website.
If you come across a website that you don’t recognise or you haven’t used before, you might feel more comfortable using it once you have checked its credentials.
Locate the ‘About us’ or ‘Contact us’ page - it is usually a good indication if a website is open and transparent about who they are, what they do and how you can contact them.
Look out for spelling and grammar errors - reliable websites will always be presented to a high standard of professionalism.
Check when the website was last updated - out-of-date information may indicate that the site is not being maintained.
Are citations provided for facts and figures? - statistics should be backed up with a link to the original source.
Headlines are used to briefly summarise a story in order to draw the reader’s attention to it. They allow the reader to make a decision about whether they wish to read on or not.
News outlets are continually vying for our attention. By using headlines that employ shock tactics they are more likely to grab us and lure us to read on.
Online sensationalised headlines or pictures are referred to in the industry as ‘clickbait’. The more shocking a story sounds, the more likely it is that people are going to stop in their tracks and click on the story.
If a headline seems particularly shocking and you decide to read on, you should do so with caution.
Does the science back-up the headline’s claim?
Once you make it past a story’s headline take some time to read the details and check to see if the science or study behind the headline has been included. The reporting of medical claims should cite the original source.
Questions to ask about studies:
Is the story based on a conference abstract? A conference abstract is usually a very brief overview of intended research areas or research findings. An abstract rather than a full study may mean that the research is only in the early stages and therefore does not hold much detailed information. Stories based on conference abstracts may be very limited.
Was the research carried out in humans? Claims made using research which has not yet made it to the human trials stage should be taken lightly. Unfortunately, positive results in animal studies do not always translate through to human studies.
How large was the study? As a rule of thumb, the larger the study, the more reliable the outcome. If a study group is small then the results may not transfer to that of the general population. If you notice a story has been based around the results of a small study, exercise caution when reading the outcome.
Was a control group used? The type of research being carried out may dictate the most appropriate type of study to use. Clinical studies are often carried out to try and prove the effectiveness of a new drug. In these particular cases a control group should be used alongside the exposed group. A control group gives the researchers the ability to look at what happens to people who don’t receive treatment and draw comparisons. Under these circumstances, studies that adopt the ‘randomised controlled trial’ (RCT) method are thought to be the most trustworthy.
What was the purpose of the research? If research reveals outcomes that are not related to those that it set out to examine then any information taken is called extrapolation. In lay terms, this occurs if scientists set out to discover if A causes B, but instead their research indicates that A in fact causes C. Any conclusions drawn about A and C are extrapolation and only assumptions can be made.
Who paid for the study? As cynical as it may sound, it can be worth taking note of the company or person who funded the study. It is normal for new product research to be supported by the manufacturing company behind it. However, there is the potential for conscious or unconscious bias during the interpretation and reporting process. If the report doesn’t raise this already, ask yourself: could a conflict of interest impact the reading of the results?
Are health news stories subject to ‘spin’?
The short answer is, yes. Spinning refers to the manipulation of a story to meet an agenda and it can happen to all areas of news.
How might a health news story be ‘spun’?
Choosing to present data that is not statistically significant
Choosing to report on incidental findings
Reporting on irrelevant sub-groups
Publishing the details of a study but ignoring safety data
It can be difficult to identify at what point a health news story is ‘spun’. There may be various people involved in putting stories together and the fault does not always lie with the reporting journalist.
Researchers and scientists may inadvertently, or even knowingly, create an abstract that delivers the information that they have gathered in a positive manner.
Press releases are used to generate media coverage and are another stage where the author may add their own spin.
Journalists may also unintentionally spin a story if they do not read the full details of a study.
Why should we be careful when reading health news?
Health news articles can be interesting and enlightening. Keeping up-to-date with news topics allows us to gain perspective of what is happening in medicine. However, it is probably best practice to not take jaw-dropping headlines to heart and to read on with caution.
Exercising a degree of caution when reading news from the medical world is important because it may prevent you from feeling a false sense of hope about future treatments or investing in unhelpful remedies.
In the most extreme cases it could help you avoid making potentially fatal decisions. In 1998 the sensationalised reporting of research into the MMR vaccine (which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’, according to the National Autistic Society) led concerned parents to stop their children from receiving the vaccination. While measles is not always a significant health concern, it can prove fatal in a small amount of cases.
Use common sense when reading health news articles. Statements that sound too good to be true often are when you delve a little deeper into the details.
In order to filter through the hundreds of articles on health produced on a daily basis, try to stick to impartial stories based on quality research.
And if you come across a piece of news which has the potential to directly impact your health or care, speak to your doctor or specialist before you take any action.