Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are the preferred research design for a great many research studies and according to popular belief: ‘… are considered by most to be the most reliable form of scientific evidence in the hierarchy of evidence that influences healthcare policy and practice because RCTs reduce spurious causality and bias’ (Wikipedia 2012). Sadly, however, their use doesn’t guarantee that health care information is free from bias.
Whilst authors of original research may endeavour to design a study in such a way as to be as impartial as possible, the mainstream health and medical media are often more interested in finding the most newsworthy angle on a story. This will not come as a shock to many people, but a new study published in PLoS Medicine (Yavchitz et al 2012) found that 51% of news items in mainstream news sources and 47% of press releases examined during the study were subject to ‘spin’. The authors of the research studies in question did not come out totally guilt free either, as Yavchitz et al found that 40% of the abstracts considered also involved a certain amount of spin. It seems that although the research design may not be biased, remaining neutral when summarising five years’ work can prove too much!
An example of newspaper outlets putting spin on research is not hard to find. Earlier this year the UK’s Daily Mail ran the headline, Why having a baby’s like being a in a terror attack: one in three mothers ‘suffers post-traumatic stress’ (Cohen 2012). In fact, only 3.4% of the women involved in that study met the full criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress whilst others showed some, but not all, symptoms. In addition, the study took place in Israel where maternity care and cultural attitudes are different and so the results may not be directly relevant or transferable to UK society. Yavchitz et al also gave examples of other, more subtle, ways that the reporting of research may be spun, highlighting the need for vigilance amongst information disseminators within health care. Unless health care practitioners have time to read through each piece of research that hits the headlines, then the only option is to go to a trusted source.
Cohen T (2012). Why having a baby’s like being a in a terror attack: one in three mothers ‘suffers post-traumatic stress’. Daily Mail, 9 August. http://tinyurl.com/9zgetc3 [Accessed 2 October 2012].
Wikipedia (2012). Randomized controlled trial. http://tinyurl.com/9q8kmpn [Accessed 2 October 2012].
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