Scientists in the UK have come up with a new online tool that helps you make sense of health studies. Understanding Health Research is a free website that lets people assess the quality of research papers they stumble across.
“Many people who use health information on a daily basis haven’t been trained to appraise research critically, and even those that have may struggle to maintain the skills over time,” the researchers point out in an article for The Conversation UK.
“Not knowing the right questions to ask means that anything that sounds “sciencey” can hold the same sway, regardless of its scientific merit,” they add, warning about the plethora of poor health reporting rampant in the media.
With plenty of research papers available online either via open access from publishers, or via a quick search for the PDF on Google Scholar, the free online tool they’ve created provides a step-by-step process anyone can use to inform their judgement on the study.
For example, if you feel sceptical about the latest newspaper story on a new breakthrough in heart disease treatment, you can grab a copy of the paper and have a look through it under the guidance of the questions posed by the website.
“After you answer the question, the tool explains what the ramifications of your answer might be for the reliability and usefulness of the research,” the authors write.
The website also contains a section where users can read explanations on common concepts one needs to be aware of when approaching scientific information.
Unfortunately, as good as it sounds, there’s a risk this tool won’t reach the right people, says Sydney-based general practitioner Dr Brad McKay.
He thinks people who encounter this tool would fall into three broad categories - academics who don’t need it anyway, a handful of curious fence-sitters who will find it useful, and the vast majority of people who have already made up their minds.
"You're going to have people who don't give a stuff about what it says anyway, because they're believing what they want to believe," says Dr McKay.
"I think it's going to help the people who are interested, but the lay people who just want a quick fix and are looking at the headlines in their Facebook and Twitter feeds, I just don't think they'll be going to that extent to validate the information."
Trying to read health research on our own also leads into the often dangerous territory of relying on Dr Google, so Understanding Health Research might be a useful tool for patients with rare conditions or ones that are difficult to treat.
When the condition is more "on the fringe", people do tend to try and look for additional information, says Dr McKay.
"For those patients on the cusp of what we know about medicine, it's going to be helpful, because they're often interested, and they don't want treatments if they're not warranted," he adds.
"It's how we market this to people," he says, pointing out that information usually reaches people better when it's specific to the condition they have (such as irritable bowel syndrome, for example), rather than when it’s a general website targeted at anyone.
However, the creators of this tool are aware of such caveats.
“Improving health literacy is an enormous and complex task with no one-size-fits-all solution, and Understanding Health Research is a small piece of a much larger puzzle,” the authors point out.
Still - next time you hear that eating copious amounts of kale and/or chocolate is going to cure you from X, it might be worth enlisting free expert advice, rather than relying on the eco-chamber of social media.