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Why the Media is Usually Wrong about Health Information

February 11, 2011 | 39,942 views
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Doctors Doing Medical ResearchWhat if wrong answers in medical research aren't an exception, but actually the rule? Many scholars who scrutinize health research are saying that it isn't just an occasional individual study that has flaws, but the entire framework of medical research itself.

Over and over, major pillars of conventional medicine are toppled when the research is further examined. Recently, a major study found that there's no evidence that statin drugs help people with no history of heart disease.

And even a brief glance at medical journals shows that prominent studies continually fall by the wayside. For example, numerous studies concluding that popular antidepressants work by altering your brain chemistry have now been disproved -- when the drugs work at all, it is due to the placebo effect.

According to Newsweek:

"Of course, not all conventional health wisdom is wrong. Smoking kills, being morbidly obese or severely underweight makes you more likely to die before your time, processed meat raises the risk of some cancers, and controlling blood pressure reduces the risk of stroke.

The upshot for consumers: medical wisdom that has stood the test of time -- and large, randomized, controlled trials -- is more likely to be right than the latest news flash about a single food or drug."

 

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

We live in an era where news is literally at our fingertips, and that includes the latest research and news stories relating to health. Everyday new studies are released, many making claims about the effectiveness of new drugs or offering "scientifically proven" medical dogma about smoking, heart disease, cancer, caffeine … you name it.

But if you're relying on the media to get the truth about health, listen up: the latest news flash offering a new drug for this or a proven explanation for that is not always right. In fact, it's probably wrong.

Most of you may not realize that my team and I scan about 1,000 stories every day and select the ten best that we post to our health blog. Based on your interest and the importance of the topics we pick the top 12 articles and convert those to expanded posts with my comments, like this article, that appear in the daily newsletter.

This way you won't be at the mercy of the conventional media that is typically in bed with many large industries and will frequently not tell you the whole truth.

The Entire Framework for Medical Research is Flawed

For any given media story about health, there is a greater than 50 percent chance that it is completely inaccurate. This is not the media's fault, as they are typically reporting the facts straight from the researchers' mouths.

The problem actually lies in the scientific research itself.

Back in 2005, Dr. John Ioannidis, now the chief of Stanford University's Prevention Research Center, showed that there is less than a 50 percent chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper will be true.

In 2008, Dr. Ioannidis proved this again, showing that much scientific research being published is highly questionable.

According to his study:

"Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true."

He noted problems with experimental and statistical methods as the main culprits, including factors such as small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias and selective reporting. The newer study, meanwhile, suggested that economic conditions, such as oligopolies, artificial scarcities and the winner's curse, are largely to blame for incorrect research.

Because of the way this system runs, journals may be more likely to publish studies that show dramatic results, positive results, or results from "hot" competitive fields. None of this, of course, has anything to do with scientific merit or accuracy.

Errors in medical research are causing people to get hurt and even die, Dr. Ioannidis says, noting that statistical flukes often serve as the basis for misleading medical recommendations.

 As Newsweek reported:

"When you do thousands of tests, statistics says you'll have some false winners," says Ioannidis. Drug companies make a mint on such dicey statistics. By testing an approved drug for other uses, they get hits by chance, "and doctors use that as the basis to prescribe the drug for this new use. I think that's wrong.""

The research appears to be particularly shoddy when it comes to surgery. Most surgeries have been tested far less so than medications, and many may be offered as medical solutions when there is little science to back them up. As Dr. Ioannidis told Newsweek:

"I wouldn't be surprised if a large proportion of surgical practice is based on thin air, and [claims for effectiveness] would evaporate if we studied them closely."

Science-Based Medicine? Not Even Close

You probably think that the medications, the surgeries and the therapies prescribed by your doctor have withstood rigorous scientific evaluation. We hear it all the time: This pill (surgery, treatment, etc.) is scientifically proven to lower your cholesterol, help you sleep better, relieve your pain or lead to weight loss … or so they claim.

The "double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial" is regarded as the gold standard of medical research. But there are serious problems with these studies, unknown to most, but widely acknowledged by researchers.

Last year I discussed this topic at length with Dana Ullman, MPH, who is widely recognized as a prominent spokesperson for homeopathic medicine. Dana has a phenomenal column in the Huffington Post, and as he shared scientists can easily set up a study that shows a drug is effective for a very limited period of time … but what happens after that? Do they still work? Do they start to cause terrible side effects?

The studies will not tell you.

Even the notion of the placebo control is now being called into question, as it's becoming known that placebos can exert healing effects in their own right.

Further, oftentimes placebos used in research studies are not the inert substances they're supposed to be, and researchers often don't disclose what ingredients are used in their placebo pills and injections. 

In a study of 176 trials published in reputable medical journals, only 8 percent of those using pills for placebos disclosed the ingredients. Studies using placebo injections and other forms fared slightly better, with over 26 percent disclosing what the placebo was made of, but most still kept their placebos a secret.

This is a major omission in these studies, as ingredients in placebos can and do skew study results, such as the case where a study on omega-3 fats got terribly skewed results after using margarine as a placebo.

So unless a study discloses its placebo ingredients, and those ingredients are truly inert, a placebo-controlled study really can't be trusted. And even then, you've got to take the placebo effect itself into account, which often results in better outcomes than the drug treatments (probably because patients taking placebos don't have to deal with drug side effects).

You Can't Trust a Study Just Because it's in a Medical Journal

Research published in medical journals gets the golden star of approval in the media, yet many, if not most, of the findings are incredibly misleading. One of the best exposés into this muddled system came from none other than Dr. Marcia Angell, who was the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

In her book The Truth about Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It, she exposed many examples of why medical studies often cannot be trusted, and said flat out:

"Trials can be rigged in a dozen ways, and it happens all the time."

Again, most medical studies only examine a drug's effect in isolation and for a very short period of time. Its claims of efficacy or safety are therefore null and void if a person intends to take a drug for a longer period or in combination with other drugs, but this faux pas is ignored by the medical community.

As Ullman stated:

"The average American is not taking just one drug. They are often on many drugs and people need to know that there simply is very, very little science-- often no science -- behind the use of multiple drugs used concurrently. I mean not only are there problems in terms of the interactions of the drugs.

Most of the science that has been done is with one drug at one time and in fact in many of the psychiatric medications, they've only been tested for six weeks."

Further, the fact that many natural therapies are not "scientifically proven" is often used to unfairly suggest they are not safe or effective. However, were you aware that 85 percent of therapies currently recommended by conventional medicine have never been formally proven either?

Often, it simply is not possible to confine a treatment, especially a multi-faceted approach that natural medicine practitioners often use, into a conventional study, and this puts natural therapies at a distinct disadvantage simply because they cannot be "tested" in this flawed system.

What are Your Options for Finding Health Truth?

What you need to understand is that even if a drug, surgery or treatment is scientifically proven, it in no way guarantees it is safe or effective. Likewise, if an alternative treatment has not been published in a medical journal, it does not mean it is unsafe or ineffective.

When it comes to your health, you simply cannot accept claims at their face value … you've got to dig below the surface and use all the resources available to you, including your own commonsense and reason, true experts' advice and other's experiences, to determine what medical treatment or advice will be best for you in any given situation.

It is a good idea to exercise the precautionary principle when evaluating ANY new drug claim, as it will more than likely be seriously flawed or biased -- and is most likely not in your or your family's best long-term interest to take the drug. As for surgeries, be sure you have evaluated the benefits versus the risks, and found out about less invasive alternatives as well as the risks/benefits of NOT doing it before deciding to move forward.

If you're facing a health challenge it is best to work with a health team, which may include a competent regular physician along with a natural health consultant. Your team should include experts who understand health at a foundational level and have had extensive experience in helping others resolve their health care challenges successfully.

Ultimately, you must come to the realization that YOU are responsible for your, and your family's, health -- not me, not your physician, and certainly not any researchers. You've got to become an active participant in your care and make sure you are making decisions that correspond with your own judgment, knowledge and experiences.

A good rule of thumb to follow?

If the medical advice you follow is creating more problems and symptoms than it solves, keep looking; if it's making you feel great, you're probably on the right track.

Remember to refine your ability to listen to your body's feedback and follow those signals, no matter what any health expert, including me, is telling you. You can typically rely on your body to tell you the truth and guide you to the best solutions for your long-term health.


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