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What’s That? Salt is In, Green Tea is Out? Really?

A day doesn’t go by without some wildly improbable cure or new medical breakthrough making the headlines.  Red wine heals everything; table salt is evil but sea salt from Indonesia is a wonder remedy; all carbs must go; cell phones are carcinogenic – it never ends.  And whatever is reported one day will doubtless be contradicted the very next morning.  We know this endless seesawing is true since we make it a regular practice to report health-related news on this site.

What do we do with all this information overload?  Who do we trust?  How do we navigate?

Believe it or not, there are some guidelines we can follow to make it easier to figure out what is credible and what is just so much hype and noise.  Scott Litin, MD, of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., has suggested that we try to evaluate these news reports the way a physician might approach them, first and foremost with key questions. You are looking for the science behind the headline.  So as you read over the health news, ask yourself the following:

  • Is it new? So many times, probably on quiet news days, what is reported as ‘new’ or ‘just in’ or ‘startling’ is really a recycling job, old news repackaged as new news.  Insomnia and caffeine are not new; salt and blood pressure are not new.  But you know how the headlines work.  Suddenly we are confronted with a blaze of bold black lettering or a dramatic rethink of well established ideas.  It gets our attention – but is it new?
  • Is it true? Ah.  An opinion, even an expert’s opinion, is just that: an opinion.  And an opinion is not proof.  So what evidence is that news report based on?  According to Dr. Litin, the gold standard for evidence is a conclusion based on randomized clinical trials.  Again, not an opinion.
  • Does this have anything to do with me? You already know that not every treatment is suitable for you.  A news story might be about a disease or condition you have, but where is the focus?  Treatment? Diagnosis? Pain management?  Get past that lurid headline and see what the heart of the piece is about before you draw any conclusions.
Why is a randomized clinical trial so important?  A randomized clinical trial takes place only if the initial research shows real promise.  A large number of volunteers is involved, and they are randomized, that is, assigned to receive either the drug being studied or a placebo using what Dr. Litin called ‘the statistical equivalent of a coin toss’.  The placebo group (and their drug looks exactly like the study drug but contains no medicine) is called the comparison or control group.  A new drug is shown to be effective only with the people treated with it do significantly better than the comparison group.  Additionally, the best trials are also double-blind, which means neither the doctors nor the volunteers know who is getting the study drug or the placebo.  
What are the red flags that tell me a news story is really a sales pitch?  Or worse, a scam?  Personal testimonials should send off warning bells, particularly if they are used to recommend a purchase.  Think of all those sleazy diet supplements!  Remember, just because the internet site is fancy or the ad campaign is expensively produced doesn’t mean the science is sound.  And think about this, too.  If there was a new miracle cure or breakthrough medication or other amazing health care development, wouldn’t your doctor be among the first to know about it?   If you doubt this, consider changing physicians. Good ones keep up with research.
Is it okay to take all my online research print-outs to my next doctor’s appointment?  By all means, tell your doctor what’s on your mind, go over your findings.  Just be selective. Keep in mind, too, studies often have conflicting results and it takes some time to sort through the reports and indications.  You know the questions, now, to ask before you haul in your findings: Is is new?  Is it true?  Does it have anything to do with me?


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