Conflicting medical research findings is an ongoing issue that is yet to be resolved. Let’s understand the reasons for the discrepancies.
Undeniably, research is needed to improve and develop new treatments for diseases or health issues. However, sometimes the findings of different health research may vary.
For instance, one research may conclude that a specific treatment or remedy is helpful for one disease and another study may conclude that it doesn’t have the same – or even any – beneficial effect.
Unfortunately, these differences may cause us to question the value and credibility of medical research. As such, it’s imperative that you have at least a general knowledge of why these variations may occur.
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"We look to medical research to discover remedial measures to insure better health and more happiness for mankind." - Thomas Hunt Morgan
The reasons that health research findings may differ
One of the most common problems in science is reproducibility. Reproducibility can be defined as how well a study’s results match up with another researcher’s findings.
If two scientists conduct a research with the same aim and get different results, then it raises questions about whether either one is even correct.
Unfortunately, it may be easy to believe that this is often a conspiracy to coerce the public to purchase certain products or embrace a particular theory.
However, there are quite a few factors that may contribute to these contradicting results. These include variations in one or more of the following:
- Sample size
- Population or data sources
- Human error
- Study type and design
- Confounding variables
- Data collection methods
- Statistical analysis
- Duration of research
In many cases researchers have found that certain factors can affect how data is collected and analyzed for health studies, which in turn affects the outcome.
These factors need to be taken into consideration when evaluating any health research article.
"There's nothing more important than our good health - that's our principal capital asset." - Arlen Specter
(1) The variations in sample size
Studies with a smaller number of participants may not be as accurate since they may not have the statistical power to detect a meaningful difference.
This is because , statistically, the smaller the sample size, the greater is the possibility of the findings being falsely deemed to be significant.
For example, concluding that something has an effect due to random chance or statistical error when it really doesn’t.
(2) The difference in population or data sources
It is important to choose the right source of information for a specific research topic, so that it may come up with the most valuable and reliable information without any bias.
Undeniably, populations in different geographical area may differ from one another, which can affect the results of a study.
(3) The difference in researchers
People with varying specialties or experience may have a completely different perspective, interpretation and analysis of the research findings.
For example, a psychologist might have a different view of a certain health condition compared to a neurologist.
"Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability." - William Oster
(4) Human error in medical research
There is always the possibility of human bias in medical research.
In fact, it can be hard to ensure that each individual perfectly meets all conditions set by the researchers. Additionally, there are chances of errors getting into the data collection and analysis process.
(5) Different studies and power of statistical analyses
Studies also differ in quality, design, significance and generalizability. For instance, some studies have only limited applicability to other populations or settings.
Different statistical analyses can lead to varying outcomes from the same data set. Subsequently, this will affect the researchers’ conclusions and their ability to generalize the findings from these studies.
(6) Lack of randomization and confounding variables
A confounding variable is a factor in research studies that can affect the outcome of the results and disrupt the real relationship between two factors. Some examples are age, lifestyle, alcohol consumption and dietary habits.
Randomization is the process of assigning participants to separate groups using a random number sequence so that each individual has an equal probability of being in one group or another.
In other words, it is a technique used to ensure that confounding variables are distributed evenly through the experimental groups.
"Sickness is the motivation for research by those that recognize improved health is just a discovery way." - Steven Mogee
(7) Different ranges in data collection methods or test instruments
There are times when discrepancies occur due to varying testing conditions. Additionally, the medical research may focus on different aspects of the same topic.
(8) Different statistical methods
Some studies use different statistical analysis methods to interpret their data.
For example, two-group comparison and one-way ANOVA are just some examples of the many different types of statistical analysis that can be used for medical research studies.
Using different statistical tests may cause different conclusions from the same research data.
(9) Different duration of research
Lastly, the duration of medical research will significantly influence the results. As such, studies that involve short-term and long-term effects of a treatment may come up with varying conclusions for the same research question.
"The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cured the disease." - Voltaire
Final words on different health research findings
Health research is a valuable tool for building knowledge of various processes and systems. However, the conclusions may not always align.
However, these differences often act as a catalyst for even further analysis and an even more in-depth understanding.
The bottom line is this – if you are reading a medical study, try to have a clear understanding of how the research was conducted.
Further, if you want a conclusive answer regarding your health query, it’s best to consult multiple sources and pay attention to how they align on their conclusions.
The importance of trust in healthcare
The public’s trust in health communication is a critical issue that needs attention. In fact, in order for people to be able to make informed decisions, they need access to trustworthy, accurate health information.
Additionally, they need open dialogue about their concerns and questions. This is particularly crucial when it regards information on complex topics like vaccines or genetic testing.
How to evaluate the accuracy of health information?
There are many sources on the internet that provide health information. But not all of them are accurate and reliable.
In fact, it’s important to be able to separate good quality, trustworthy information from inaccurate or misleading information when it comes to your health.
If you get your medical advice online, make sure it comes from reputable sources like doctors, government agencies, universities or other credible organizations with healthy reputations.
Reichel, C. (2018) When research findings don’t agree, The Journalist’s Resource.