“How to separate hype from hope” (Published February 17, 2000)

They are everywhere! Books, newspaper and television ads, tabloid claims, infomercials – all about vitamins, herbs, antioxidants, “special formulas” all which almost guarantee you'll look younger, feel better, cure or prevent cancer, arthritis or heart disease. They all claim to be the result of “medical research” by “leading authorities.” How are you suppose to know what is real and what is not? In other words, how do you separate hype from hope?

Have you ever wondered how doctors know which new, alleged remedies really work? Doctors certainly don't (or shouldn't!) get their information from tabloids or infomercials. An understanding of some basic principles may help you sort through the morass of media and advertisement dollars trying to separate you from your money.

Any new therapy needs validation. Testimonials, case studies, famous (paid!) spokespersons should not sway you. If information gathered is biased in favor of the new therapy, the reports of benefit should be viewed skeptically. The tool most used to critically evaluate any new treatment is something called the “randomized, double-blinded clinical trial.” Those are the buzz words you should look for in any report. What this means is that patients with the condition being studied have been assigned to receive either the new treatment or the standard (or even placebo, or “dummy” pill) “randomly” so no bias is allowed. This is important to avoid giving healthier patients the newer treatment, which, of course, would make the new treatment look better. The “blind” part means that the patients don't know which treatment they are getting. This is to avoid patients reporting symptoms because they know they are on the new or old treatment, and are worried because they have that information. The “ double -blind” part means that the doctor evaluating the patient also is unaware of which treatment the patient is on. Having that information may bias the interpretation of any reported symptoms. All this “blind” stuff is pretty scary, until you realize that there are “data safety monitoring” committees that have access to all the information and thus protect patients from unexpected adverse effects. They also stop studies early because of better than expected results.

Don't believe all you hear or read, just because a “doctor” writes it or you hear it on the radio or TV. Besides looking for “randomized, double-blinded” clinical trials, you should look to mainstream reporting bodies that critically review reports before publishing them. A group that self-publishes self-serving “research” is no help at all!



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