Simple steps to fact-check health news stories

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Health stories in the media can teach us about the importance of health issues and change how we think and what we do about our health.

While many news reports are reliable, some are missing important information, and some are confusing, conflicting, or misleading.

The media can be anything from television and the Internet to magazines and newspapers.

High-quality news reports give us realistic expectations and inform the medical community about medical advances.

Unfortunately, time constraints or topic focus can miss important information that is critical in evaluating health options.

Missing information can include comparing one approach to another, the side effects of an approach, if a study’s results are statistically significant or whether the study was done in animals or in people.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 2011 news story reported on a study comparing conventional flu with a common Chinese herbal flu. The news story explained that compared with no treatment, the combination helped relieve participants’ fevers sooner.

The story did not mention that participants’ fevers went down only about 11 hours sooner with the combination of products. This information could be relevant for readers who are deciding whether to use the products. The story also did not mention that none of the products helped with symptoms such as cough and sore throat.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a news story from 2010 talked about using fish oil during pregnancy, but failed to mention possible side effects of fish oil like upset stomach and possible interactions with other drugs.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says media stories sometimes report the results of studies done only on animals without explaining that such basic science may have little immediate significance to people.

Another issue is that sometimes medical research findings conflict with information previously reported, because researchers publish their findings as they complete their studies and new studies sometimes disagree with earlier discoveries.

Reading and understanding the original sources for a story is the best way to make sure you get all the facts you need to not feel mislead.

The likelihood that the story is correct increases if a media outlet is not trying to promote a point of view or cause, was written by a science or health reporter trained to understand medical findings and/or includes quotes from experts not connected to the study for a more objective take on the findings.

Use this checklist to checkup on if a news report is giving you the full story on a health topic.

Was the product, procedure, or device tested on people? Findings from animal or laboratory research may not be immediately meaningful to your health.

Are there alternatives to the approach being discussed? You want to know what is already available, so you can compare your options.

Were enough people studied? When the number of people in a study is small, the results aren’t as strong. Another way to look at that question is were the results big enough to be meaningful to you? A small difference between two approaches might interest scientists but be of little importance to your health or quality of life.

Did the researchers consider the many things that can influence results, such as participants’ general health or health habits, or discuss the limitations of their results.

Were the study participants similar to you in ways that may matter, such as age, race, or gender?

Was the study lengthy enough to show long-term benefits or risks? Natural products may take time before they show benefits; some side effects may take months or years to show up.

Have other researchers had similar results? One study rarely proves anything.

Was the study funded by a group that would profit financially from the study findings? If so, you should be wary of the results.

Reading, watching, or listening to health news can help you learn and stay informed about new medical findings.

However, there’s a lot of important information to consider before you try an approach featured in the news.

Remember, no matter how promising an approach may sound, it’s important to talk about it with your health care providers before you try it.

Since we may have missed some details in reporting this story, take a look at the source for more information on the National Institutes of Health web story, Know the Science: The Facts About Health News Stories.

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