Use a Critical Eye When Reading Health and Medical Articles

News coverage of health and medical developments has proliferated greatly in recent years as more and more media outlets place more emphasis on this area. While this means there are more sources for the public to learn about health and medicine, the downside is that not all of the reporting gives a balanced look at the developments. This can mean patients are not fully aware of the negatives associated with medical developments.

During the recent Too Much Medicine conference in Helsinki, Finland, Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of the website HealthNewsReview, outlined many of the concerns regarding how health and medicine are covered in the media today.

HealthNewsReview — which is a nonprofit — is what I consider a must-read site, as it examines both health and medical news articles from major news outlets and news releases from groups and evaluates them based on accuracy and how risks and benefits are presented.

Schwitzer lamented several things about coverage of health and medicine in the media. He said that most of the coverage exaggerates or emphasizes the benefits of a drug or a procedure while glossing over the potential harms that may be associated with it. And he’s right. When was the last time you read an article about a drug, device or procedure that really discussed the potential side effects or risks associated with it?

A study HealthNewsReview conducted on 2,600 articles it has analyzed demonstrates how reporting on health care interventions often comes up short in discussing downsides. The study found that 63% of the stories did not adequately assess the scope of potential harms, 66% didn’t assess how big – or small – the potential benefits were and only 54% discussed alternative options.

At MedShadow, we report on medical studies all the time, and we aim to give you a balanced view of results so you get a complete understanding of what they really mean. Still, we understand that you may get health and medical information from many different sources.

With this in mind, here are some tips to use while reading about medical studies.

  • Take note of who funded the study. Studies are often funded by drug companies, and there can be bias in the reporting results.
  • If a study had a small number of participants, the results may not stand up in the real world.
  • It’s also important to be wary of study results that were conducted using animals, as an effect that was seen in a rat may not translate into the same outcome in a human.

Schwitzer also mentioned some things to look out for in an article. If an article portrays a drug or treatment as a “holy grail,” or calls a procedure minimally invasive, “head for the hills,” as neither situation is likely true. He also cautioned to beware of articles that focus on a single person’s experience, calling it the “tyranny of the anecdote.”

Schwitzer is also concerned that there are conflicts of interest in some stories. Some media outlets receive funding or advertising from pharmaceutical or health companies, yet don’t admit this can be a conflict of interest as it could influence coverage of stories.

The bottom line: When reading a health or medical article, use a critical eye.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is an associate editor at BioCentury, which provides news and information about the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining BioCentury in 2019, Jonathan worked for MedShadow as content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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