Killer Mars Bars and medical media

Classic headline

Classic headline

Health in the media is one of my favourite topics, so I was delighted to be asked to write a feature for Student BMJ, advising medical students about what to look for when reading a health story in the general media. The questions medical students should ask are also relevant to everyone who wants to sort PR puff from genuine medical breakthroughs.

Medical stories can be just too tempting for the headline writers – I particularly enjoyed taking an in-depth look at the research behind The Metro’s classic killer chocolate story (see left).

You can read the article here (requires registration but free). Here’s a summary of my five top questions to ask about a health news story:

  • Where’s the research from? The source of the story, whether it’s a PR survey masquerading as news, or a randomised controlled study from a peer review journal, is always my first question.
  • What did the researchers actually do? The study design is your first clue as to whether the story is reliable. If it’s an observational study, you know it can’t prove causation.
  • Where does it fit into the science? Check whether this is early, concept-generating research, or a later clinical study. And does it confirm earlier research, or is it a surprise finding that goes against previous studies? If so, it could be an anomaly.
  • Is it corroborated? Look for quotes from independent experts, who will be able to comment on the context of the research and may point out any problems with it.

Keeping a critical mind is crucial when wading through the health pages. The article also includes tips from veteran health journalists Nick Timmins and Jeremy Laurence, who were very obliging when I collared them over dinner at the Medical Journalists Association AGM to grill them for the piece.

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