Researching medical literature: what you can and cannot do yourself
August 19, 2011
Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP
Shocking health headlines in mainstream media are designed to stop us in our tracks. Take the 1996 study I mentioned in a recent post where researchers found a link between coffee and lower suicide rates. There could have been any number of explanations, but journalists had a field day. Even the respected Harvard Gazette ran with the misleading but cutesy headline: Coffee Won't Grind You Down.
We all know why: page views. Studies released as "breaking news" are typically watered-down press releases, which themselves dilute the original, peer-reviewed results. And if a pun can be worked into the headline (see Harvard's above), you better believe it will be.
While it's difficult to dismiss these catchy headlines, and while medical journals can be tricky to search, access, and then understand, they publish the most accurate and up-to-date research, according to Academic Services Millbrook House.
You may be able to find complete current studies by searching actual publications online (The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association are two examples), while Google Scholar, UpToDate, and PubMed provide searchable databases by key words or sources within specified timelines. (The UNC Health Sciences Library provides instructions on how to perform searches of evidence-based medicine on these various databases.)
Once you've found the original source material, look for abstracts and summaries (usually free), or copy the study's headline into a search engine to find expert commentary that sums up the findings. (Here are some additional tips from BMJ on how to read medical papers.)
Still confused? As a physician, it's tempting to tell you to go to your doctor, but times have changed and appointments are more expensive and difficult to make than ever. If you're truly stumped, try calling on a patient advocate for help digesting the medical literature you've found. The bottom line: Use the Internet to your advantage, be it through conducting your own research or seeking the help of a professional.
Mark L. Friedman MD FACEP FACP is an emergency physician working to revolutionize the delivery of health care.