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Olwen Anderson's Blog

How To Be An Informed Health Consumer

Friday, October 31, 2008
You’re keen to improve your health, so you probably try to obtain as much information as possible. But how do you decide what is worth reading and what isn’t? And how do you assess whether the information you find is worthwhile? Here's your five point checklist: The way to sift out what is accurate, what you really want to know, and what can be left unread.

When assessing any article about health news, doing research on the internet, or listening to a health-related message, applying these tests will help you decide:

  1. What is the message being delivered – is it just information, are you being urged to do particular things, or buy certain products?
  2. What are the qualifications of the person providing the information? Do you think these qualifications are adequate for the kind of information they’re providing? 
  3. Does the article talk at length about a particular product or brand? If so, the ‘information’ could be thing more than an advertisement.
  4. Beware of emotionally loaded language. Heart-rending stories can influence you a lot, particularly if the story closely matches your experience. Information which generates fear should be assessed sceptically, as inciting fear is a well-used advertising ploy.
  5. Look at how the information has been gathered. Is it the result of a planned research project? Are you informed how the research was done, and how many people were studied? Obviously, information about a product that helped your girlfriend’s mothers’ cousin’s neighbour does not qualify as ‘research’!

‘Evidence based’ is a term which is widely used, and there are different types: ‘Clinical Evidence’ is the result of real life experience. In short, “we have tried it and it works”. Clinical evidence is strongest when it has been gathered over a long period of time, and with a large group of people.

Research papers are published after tests are carried out on large groups of people or animals, often with ‘blind’ or ‘double blind’ methods. This ensures that no-one knows whether they are getting the placebo or the substance being tested, and so results are more objective. It’s not uncommon for different research projects on the same subject to produce opposing results, which promotes much debate in the scientific community – and more research. 

There is real-life testing and artificial testing: ‘In Vitro’ means that the testing has been carried out in an artificial environment, such as a test tube. ‘In Vivo’ means that the testing has been carried out on a living body.

So, the next time you come across information about a particular disease, hear a health news item or read a health-related article, apply these simple tests and you’ll become a more informed health consumer.

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