Why is ‘more study’ so often needed?
Q: Why is it that I so often hear about medical news with a wishy-washy conclusion and the last words being “more study needed”?
A: It’s true. When medical research is described in the news — no matter how promising — the last line is usually a disclaimer about how more research is needed.
That may seem surprising given the positive results and often dramatic implications of what is being presented. Why the seemingly endless need for more study?
There are good reasons:
- True “breakthroughs” are rare. Research tends to make advances in small steps, many of which are dead ends. In addition, research that makes the news is often preliminary, based on animal studies or only a small number of human subjects.
- For news outlets seeking a large audience, there’s a tendency to present even the most preliminary research results in a dramatic and positive light. But responsible reporting requires some form of disclaimer when the findings are of unknown importance and years away from availability.
- Researchers want their ideas and findings to be known. After all, that’s how ideas are spread among others in the field, and that’s how the researchers advance their reputations, get promoted, and attract funding for additional research.
- Hope is a powerful motivator; no one wants to take that away. We all want to believe that progress is being made — even if preliminary and of uncertain value — with conditions that are common or lack highly effective treatments.
When condensed to sound bites, research described in the media may skim past limitations such as flaws in measurement, study design, or the possibility the results are due to random chance.
Results can also turn out to be irrelevant or lack an immediate impact. For example, many animal studies come to conclusions that don’t apply to humans.
It may seem as though medical researchers and the reporters who bring their stories to you are inordinately conservative by recommending more study.
But the stakes are high. Being wrong could be dangerous to the health of research subjects and future patients. It also could jeopardize the researchers’ reputations and those of their academic sponsors and funding sources. Thus, the big disclaimer at the end.
© 2018 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.