How to Understand Medical Headlines—Part 2

How do you handle medical headlines that seem to make things more confusing?

Rob Lamberts, MD,
December 2, 2009
Episode #025

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Last week I discussed the issue of medical studies and how to interpret them.  Specifically I addressed the common mistakes people make when trying to figure out what they mean.  If you didn’t read that article, please do that before reading this one.

How to Understand Medical Headlines

Today I am going to continue on this issue, covering how to listen critically when you hear sensational headlines and determine what to worry about and what to ignore. That’s the essence of this issue, after all.

To give useful information, I am going to give different scenarios you may face.  The type of information you have to deal with will determine your reaction.

How to Understand Headlines About Medications

The first scenario is when you hear about studies that pertain to a drug you are taking.  These studies will either say that the drug is harmful, or that it doesn’t work as advertised (studies that say a drug is great won’t usually make the evening news). Here are a few things you should remember when dealing with this kind of headline:

Don’t Panic – Prescription drugs have a very detailed approval process, so even though the drug may have problems, it probably won’t make you die, get terribly sick, or have arms or legs fall off.

Don’t assume the worst – I assume that you trust your doctor; if you don’t, then you should find one you do trust.  One of the main tasks of a physician is to know the drugs she prescribes.  When I prescribe something, I don’t do so blindly; I know the majority of side effects, risks, interactions, and benefits of any drug I prescribe.  If your doctor is using an electronic medical record, chances are good that they are checking interactions for every drug prescribed.  Most of the medical headlines don’t catch me by surprise.