Be a better advocate for yourself, one medical study at a time

Oct 21, 2018

You may not remember the college days you spent pouring over the latest studies to make a point in that big paper due a lot sooner than you'd hoped. Spring break was far more memorable. But it's worth noting that primary sources, like medical studies and clinical trials, hold the details and caveats that articles written about those same studies often don't.

As someone who's in charge of your own medical care, you probably want the facts. But combing through a clinical trial isn't the easiest thing to do. How do you know if some organization with an agenda funded the study? Or what does it mean if the results of the study have never been replicated? Joining us on "Take Care" with more is Olivia Tsistinas, clinical outreach coordinator at Upstate Medical University's Health Sciences Library in Syracuse -- which is open to the public.

“There is more and more information available to the average consumer and quality information really helps you make better health care decisions,” said Tsistinas. “So getting in touch with those primary studies is only going to aid in your ability to make better health care decisions for yourself and your family.”

But it’s not always that easy. Say you come across an article on some aspect of your health. The headline catches your eye because it’s incredible: The scientifically-proven way to lose weight for good and keep it off forever. When you read that article, is it clear where the author’s “proof” came from?

“The first thing I want people to do is take a pause and see if they can identify what the original study is,” Tsistinas said.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But if you do find that original article (the medical study or trial, in most cases), Tsistinas said there are a few things you can do initially to determine if it checks out:

  • Who conducted the research? Example: Is the company that manufactured the drug also the one testing the drug?
  • Does anyone have a financial tie to the study? Example: This can be in the form of materials used in the study, as well.

The bones of the study

When you’re looking at a medical study, Tsistinas explained that they’re usually structured in a similar way.

“The top of an article should have what their method was, what the outcome was and what the conclusion is,” Tsistinas said. “And it should let you know what kind of study it is.”

Other things you should pay attention to: when the study was completed (you’ll want that to be more recent, Tsistinas says within five years), how many subjects were in the study (the more the better), and if the study even involved humans.

“A lot of early science is based on rats and mice. And those aren’t things that you’re going to be able to roll easily to your health care provider and ask them to implement in your care the next day. That’s something that’s an important step toward a breakthrough but it isn’t the breakthrough that you’re looking for,” said Tsistinas.

Medline Plus, Tsistinas says, will point you in the right direction. The studies on the site are validated. And if you prefer a human touch, you can always rely on your friendly neighborhood librarian. Upstate’s library is open to the public.

“What’s up, doc?”

Tsistinas loves being able to connect people to health care information, but she also urges people to get in touch with their health care provider before making any decisions based on research.

“You are not going in as a passive consumer to your health care. You’re an equal partner,” Tsistinas said. “First of all, feel really good about having that [study or article] in hand, being prepared. It not only helps the physician or nurse understand what your interests are, but it’s going to help you understand how to navigate your health care concern with them.”