How to be a Savvy Consumer of Health Information

The Well Blog of The New York Times published an article earlier this week titled, “Is Breast-Feeding Really Better?” Wow, I thought this issue was pretty much put to bed. The breast is best, right? But like all newspapers, The New York Times needs readers, so an emotional topic such as this is a great hook. The provocative title speaks volumes, and the comment section got very heated.*

The Shopping Sherpa

How do you feel when you read or hear of new findings that seem to contradict what you believe to be pretty established knowledge in the medical community? Confused? Exasperated?

How do we cut through the hype and use our critical thinking skills to come to reasonable conclusions? Here are some tips to help you be a better information consumer:

Where were the findings originally published? It’s best if it’s a peer-reviewed journal (examples: Nature or the Journal of American Medical Association). If so, you can be assured the researchers’ study and findings have passed the scrutiny of professionals in the same field.

Have these findings been replicated in other experiments by other researchers, or is this a brand new finding?

Who funded the research? Was it the government, a pharmaceutical company, or some other entity with a vested interest in the findings? (NIH funded the breast-feeding study.)

Does the reporter or publication have a bias or agenda? In the case of the breast-feeding article, maybe the publisher saw a chance to attract readers with a controversial topic.

It’s relatively easy to find studies to support most points of view.  Whether you’re reading diet books, magazine articles, or health blogs – check the writer’s sources and their credentials. This is especially important today when we are bombarded by huge amounts of information. It’s important to be discerning!

*The study, from Ohio State University, compared 1,773 sibling pairs, one of whom was breast-fed, and the other bottle-fed. Controlling for multiple variables, and looking at 11 measures of health and intellectual competency, the study “found no statistically significant differences between the breast-fed and bottle-fed siblings on any of these measures.” 

The piece ends with statistician Geoff Der’s reassurance that, “In a society with a clean water supply and modern formulas,” he said, “a woman who isn’t able to breast-feed shouldn’t be feeling guilty, and the likelihood that there’s any harm to the baby is pretty slim.”

Image courtesy of Flickr.com/ The Shopping Sherpa

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