Can you believe what you read about health stories?

28th January 2015 | Posted in Mature marketing


Through my work on When They Get Older I’ve become increasingly aware of the volume of stories around health that appear in most of the British newspapers and on that venerable institution, the BBC web site.  And then there’s all the stuff that gets picked up and passed around social media as truth and nothing but the truth.

The challenge is knowing which of the often sensational headlines we should heed and where we as both readers and sharers of information need to look at the back story.

As an example, a newspaper report claimed recently that “Regular doses of ibuprofen could allow people to live up to 12 years longer”. Notice the word “could”. You have to scroll down some way to discover that the excitement was based on laboratory tests with worms that might possibly have implications for humans. A long way to go before we know though.

Then we get conflicting stories – especially if opinions are polarised. One day statins will save the world. The next they’ll cause us terrible side-effects. At my house we joke that if you see a report saying you shouldn’t be doing something you enjoy, you need only wait a few weeks before another study will come along saying the opposite.

These sorts of stories appear with great regularity. One new discovery could save us from an illness – and another could cause it.

Why are we seeing so many sensational headlines and how do we work out what advice we and our parents should follow?

Why does it happen?

Everybody involved in purveying the news has a job to do.

Researchers need publicity to attract funding and sometimes they or their press offices can be a little enthusiastic in publicising what are really very early findings. Research published last year about research in general found that 40% of press releases from UK universities contained exaggerated claims. You can’t really blame them if they need to make some noise to please the sponsors.

News editors want stories that say something different and make their publication stand out.

Non-specialist journalists can struggle to understand the science or are simply overwhelmed by the volume of stories coming through their mailbox. But they need to create copy.

Social media people – well, they just like sharing for all sorts of reasons.

Can we sort the wheat from the chaff?

There are quite a few areas that we can look at in a news story to try to determine how valid the headline is:

•             Do we know enough? A major recent story was the number of elderly patients coming into hospital from care homes who were dehydrated. It would have been easy to leap to the conclusion that the care homes were at fault, but reasons behind the dehydration weren’t part of the remit for the researchers. Not having drinks available could be the cause but there are plenty of other reasons, such as patients refusing to drink as much as they need.

•             What are the numbers being quoted? A report can say the incidence of something – a disease, a certain crime for example – has doubled in a year, but we need to know the absolute numbers. It might have doubled because this year there were two incidents this year and last year there was only one. On the other hand another issue might have increased by only 2% but we’re talking, say, 2% of hundreds and thousands. We need to know the absolute numbers as well as the relative numbers to make our own judgements on what is really happening.

•             Is it very early research? What we often see reported are preliminary findings of some research. They haven’t yet been fully explored or peer reviewed, but the researchers think there may be something valuable to be learned. Press offices and publications hungry for news may pick up on these long before anything has been thoroughly tested.

•             How big was the research sample? There’s probably no absolute size for good research samples. The story of the paralysed man who could walk again after stem cell therapy was hugely exciting but applied to just one person. Most research needs a significantly larger sample to give truly valid answers.

•             What’s the story behind the research? Much scientific research is funded by commercial organisations though that’s not to say it isn’t independent. Other research, such as surveys around health, care, finance or any of the other issues that affect our lives, can be completely independent or may be created by organisations looking for publicity. Even that can be valuable, but it’s worth looking at who is driving the research and where they are aiming to take us.

•             Are we talking cause or association? Suppose research shows that people who drink a bottle of red wine a day have high potassium levels, say. Does one lead to the other? And if so, which way round? Or is it just coincidence? While this is a concocted example, there can be a tendency to leap to the conclusion that associated events are cause and effect when that hasn’t been proven at all.

•             What do other studies say? If one research project reports completely opposed findings to everything else that’s gone before, that makes it news. It doesn’t mean that the latest findings are the best. It’s worth looking at different reports in the light of the majority of findings.

•             What do other experts say? Are there independent experts quoted in the news story agreeing with the research? If there aren’t it’s either because the journalist hasn’t asked or they couldn’t find anyone that agreed.

An excellent site to visit to find out more about the story behind the headlines is the NHS Choices Behind the Headlines, which aims to give you all the information we’ve listed above in a nutshell for the popular stories of the day.

And for all those scare stories that do the rounds on social media and by word of mouth, try taking a look at Snopes and similar urban myth sites for a healthy bit of debunking.



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