Written by Edward Shehab
Fact checked by The Brain Blog Team
Today’s healthcare environment provides consumers with access to a deluge of health-related information - whether it’s about a diagnosis they just received, a medication they were prescribed, or a supplement that they’re considering. There are so many sources of credible information online, though unfortunately, there are just as many that are not credible. So how can you tell the difference?
The upside of our current info-saturated world is that if you were recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition, you can immediately find a wide range of information about that condition. In most cases, you can find medical research papers, entire websites dedicated to the condition, support groups for people in treatment for the condition, diets and exercise regimens that are recommended for survivors of the condition, supplements that are purported to prevent the condition, and much more.
The downside of having so much information available to us on the internet is that some of it has been created by profiteers who are selling products or supplements that don’t actually do what their creators are claiming they do.
It can be challenging to tell if a website, paper or research study is credible, since just about anyone can create a website for a few hundred dollars. These definitions of common information sources should help you sift through what’s truthful and what might not be.
A white paper is a report that breaks down a complex issue and presents the perspective or philosophy of the group or organization that created it. It is meant to help people make a decision or understand something at a deeper level.
These reports are called “white papers” because they were once color-coded by our government, with white designating that the report was approved for general public access. Traditionally, white papers are used in business, politics and technical fields.
Medical white papers are deep articles about medical research, meant to educate the reader about the research. White papers can be written by sources who have a commercial interest in the research results or in supporting a specific commercial benefit of the product or treatment.
When a scientific article has been reviewed by the author’s peers in their industry - for example: a brain cancer research white paper gets reviewed by oncologists who specialize in brain cancer - it is designated as “peer-reviewed.” This designation is considered a form of quality control and it makes the article significantly more credible than a simple white paper, as it’s been reviewed for obvious inconsistencies, inaccuracies or other flaws by educated experts.
While peer review isn’t a flawless review process or designation, most scientists do agree that it implies credibility. With that in mind, it’s helpful to note that a white paper that has not been peer-reviewed may not be scientific or even accurate.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “Clinical trials are research studies performed in people that are aimed at evaluating a medical, surgical, or behavioral intervention. They are the primary way that researchers find out if a new treatment, like a new drug or diet or medical device (for example, a pacemaker) is safe and effective in people. Often a clinical trial is used to learn if a new treatment is more effective and/or has less harmful side effects than the standard treatment.”
Clinical trials are also used to help find ways to increase early detection, prevent health problems, or enhance life for people living with diseases or chronic health concerns. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves clinical trials with humans after they’ve been informed of the potential product or therapy’s safety and effectiveness, along with results of studies in animals.
Double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are considered the “gold standard” of healthcare research. Placebo-controlled means that there is a control group that is given a placebo, while a second group is given the treatment or drug that is being studied. Double-blind means that neither the people being given the treatment, nor the medical professionals that are involved, are made aware of who is given the placebo and who is given the treatment. These types of studies are considered more credible than those that simply provide all participants with the treatment and record and study the results.
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