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How to Make Sense of Medical Headlines and Studies

How should you respond when you hear or read medical headlines that are either sensational or confusing?

By
Rob Lamberts, MD,
November 25, 2009
Episode #024

Page 1 of 3

I am sure you have heard all of the headlines regarding the new recommendations about screening for breast cancer. They caused quite a bit of controversy and some outright anger.

I got a twitter from Lynette…or is that a tweet? Whatever. She wondered what my take was on these breast cancer screening recommendations. When these recommendations were issued by the US Preventive Task Force, I had to spend a lot of my time in the office telling how I interpreted these big changes.

How to Make Sense of Medical Headlines

In truth, this happens frequently, with medical headlines hitting the newspapers, morning TV shows, and blogs on the Internet. People don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing, as a lot of times it is either sensational (like a cure for cancer or key to fixing obesity) or it directly contradicts things people have heard earlier. The recent breast cancer recommendations, for example, seem to contradict what people took for granted: women should perform self breast exams and get mammograms. Now they say not to do them? What can you believe?

So in the next two articles I am going to teach you how to listen to what you hear on the news without getting totally confused. Today’s article will focus on some common mistakes we make and the next one will cover how to do it right.

How to Make Sense of Medical Studies

OK, back to those confusing headlines. I have to first say that it isn’t always easy for me to handle studies and headlines, so I don’t expect to remove confusion, but I do think I can reduce it some.

The first step in this process is to understand common mistakes people make when dealing with science and how it relates to their health care.

Error 1: Correlation Does Not Equal Cause

To understand the first error, imagine a farmer who notices that a rooster crows before every sunrise. It happens every morning. This fine scientist decides that the rooster’s crowing must cause the sun to rise, coming up with the sun-rooster hypothesis. But this is no slouch scientist, and so he goes out to test this hypothesis by asking his farmer friends, and all of them say the rooster always crows before the sunrise.

So there you have it: proof that roosters have cosmologic powers, right? Not so fast! What our scientist has done is to simply note a correlation between two observations, which is fine, but the conclusion that one causes the other is in error. Is our scientist foolish for thinking this? No, he just needs more information to make his conclusion.

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