With the shortage of family doctors and increasing lack of access to healthcare providers, Canadians are turning to the internet in unprecedented numbers for medical research. Good or bad, this is the scenario many of us are facing, but how is a non-expert supposed to understand the difference between studies, which publications are credible, and which are not? And even if you can source research from credible publications, how do you decipher complex scientific language?
Deciphering Medical Research
Unlike anecdotal knowledge, medical research is designed to provide unbiased information based on controlled clinical research and statistical analysis. Medical research can often be challenging for the non-expert to understand and for that reason, many people shy away from trying to read research reports.
Instead, these individuals often gravitate to news headlines about the research. Many media companies enthusiastically re-publish research results but unfortunately may do this without thoroughly investigating the quality of the primary study.
For our Insider members who are advocating for their own healthcare, as many Canadians must these days, there is nothing more powerful than knowledge. The aim of this article is to help Insiders read medical research with a critical eye.
Credibility in the area of medical research falls into a few areas, including:
1. Are the researchers qualified?
You wouldn’t want gut health tips from a cardiologist or heart health advice from a practicing oncologist. While there may be connections between the fields, checking to see that those carrying out the research are accredited in their fields is an important starting qualifier for a reliable study.
2. Is the research up to date?
There are approximately 1.8 million research papers produced every year. Medical research is not static, it’s vast and constantly changing. As a rule, it’s best to focus on research not older than 5 years from its date of publishing.
3. Is there a conflict of interest?
Similar to some mainstream news sites with affiliate links or with known political leanings or agendas, medical research articles and websites can also be biased and more inclined to hype findings to support a conclusion which will benefit a research sponsor.
A credible piece of research will disclose any potential conflicts of interest at the end of the paper. It’s important to maintain some level of skepticism in this regard.
4. Turn to trusted publications
In medical research, like in any other publishing environment, there are a few names which seem to garner a higher degree of respect for the articles they publish. A few notable publications are:
5. Is the Content Credible?
Papers may make exaggerated claims backed by statistical evidence however the quality of statistical evidence can greatly vary. For example, the research may have been carried out on a small sample size, the duration of experiment may not have been long enough to make it statistically relevant, or the scientists forgot to input important data during the study.
Breaking Down the Typical Research Paper
Medical research writing is unique in that there is no one order in which to read the information. Many people prefer to start with the introduction to gauge a better understanding of the topic, after which they move on to the abstract and other sections if the topic is what they are seeking to inform themselves about.
Here’s a breakdown of those sections.
This is a brief summary of the entire paper, with the key points noted, including the purpose, hypothesis, summary of methods, and results. This section either encourages you to read on or confirms that this is not what you’re looking for.
Introduction and Background:
This section is arguably one of the most important sections for those who may not have prior knowledge regarding the topic being researched. Reading this section provides a thorough understanding of the science behind the disease or study at hand.
This section discusses the mechanisms through which data was collected. Methods may involve surveys, interviews, or use of other clinical or biotechnical techniques. This section can be quite daunting based on the type of research, however, if the purpose of reading the paper is to gather credible information, then the Methods section should serve as an area for you to identify limitations of the study.
This is the section where you may see large tables and graphs with figure captions. It is important to not let this intimidate you and instead focus on the general trends. As a first-time reader, you may struggle with this section and what it conveys. However, if you take the time to understand the techniques and keywords used, you will get a much better understanding of the data presented.
Perhaps the most important part of a paper is the Discussion section. This section provides what it promises – a detailed discussion of the results obtained. It is designed to present the results in direct relation to the topic being studied.
Similar to the abstract, this section provides a concise description of the study. However, unlike the abstract, this section can also discuss future direction for researchers, the implications of this research on past findings, as well as limitations and any conflicts of interest during the study.
Some researchers may take liberties in this section based on the methodologies, results, or limitations of the study. A critical reader with the right background will pick these out.
This section will list all works cited. A credible paper will accurately cite all information used in the paper and will have referred to other credible sources. Look above to see how you can determine the credibility of a written piece.
Terminologies – A Brief List
The chart below offers up some of the most commonly used terminologies in medical research along with their meanings:
Double blind randomized controlled trial
A clinical trial where neither the researcher nor participants know which treatment/intervention participants are receiving until the trial is over.
Placebo Controlled Study
A study where one group receives the active treatment or variable being tested while the placebo group is provided with a fake version of the treatment/variable.
Abstract, Methods, Discussion
The current best treatment for an issue/disease. The effectiveness of a new treatment can be compared to the golden standard in a study.
In vivo, in vitro, ex vivo
Refers to the environment a study is carried out in.
In vivo: inside a living body
Ex vivo: on cells taken directly from a living body
In vitro: on a lineage of cultured cells
Significance Values (p tests, z tests, ANOVA)
Results, Discussion, Conclusion
Refers to the various statistical techniques used to objectively analyze results
Statistical tests give significance values such as p<0.05 or p>0.05 which mean significant/insignificant respectively.
Now that you are familiar with the various sections of a paper, here are some Insider tips to making the most of your reading experience. Happy Learning!
1.Read each section and summarize it in your own words for later reference.
2. Watch videos on the methods discussed in the paper to visualize how the study was carried out.
3. Browse the ‘key words’ mentioned in the article to gauge a better understanding of the topic at hand.
4. Keep an open mind. It is possible that you may have a biased opinion on a topic and may want to read papers seeking that opinion. Papers are designed to be objective, so keeping an open mind helps broaden your knowledge.
5. Question the paper. Are there any errors you noticed with the methods in the paper? Alternatively, is there another paper you read recently that challenges the ideas brought up in this paper?
6. Formulate your own opinion. There will be moments where papers will result in inconclusive findings. It’s important to pay attention to why the findings were inconclusive and ask what this may mean for future research.
7. Always form an educated opinion based on multiple sources.