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A new tool to help everyone understand and evaluate health research

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Understanding Health Research is a new online tool designed to help the public and patients understand and assess research papers.  In this guest blog, Dr Amy Nimegeer and Chris Patterson from the project team tell us more about the website and how they hope it will help people make better informed decisions on health.

Every day we are hit with a barrage of health information from many different sources – friends, social media, newspapers, TV, magazines, and radio. A lot of this information seems to be based on scientific research but is contradictory, with scientists seeming to say, for example, coffee will give us cancer one week and coffee will keep us healthy the next. Not only can these mixed messages make it difficult for us to make healthy choices, it can also undermine public confidence in the usefulness of science.

Some of these contradictions are down to genuine disagreement between scientists, and some are down to research being poorly reported in the media. More fundamentally, we might not have these problems if more people had been taught to critically appraise research evidence. Scientific papers can be dense and unfriendly, but having the skills to read a piece of research and judge its quality and usefulness can help us all to be more critical of the health claims we come across, and allow us to make better informed decisions for ourselves and others. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that many of us lack the confidence and skills to critically access health information . After all, if healthcare professionals struggle to evaluate health research, what chance does everyone else have?

Help is at hand

To help tackle this problem, we have developed a free online tool called Understanding Health Research, launched this month to support non-scientists through the process of understanding and interpreting health research papers. The tool was a collaboration between researchers at the University of GlasgowUniversity of OxfordUniversity of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and was funded by the Medical Research Council’s Population Health Science Research Network.

So what does Understanding Health Research actually do? The tool is an online resource that walks the user through a series of questions designed to highlight key aspects of research. First a set of general questions examines vital issues including whether the paper was peer reviewed and who funded the research. Next, the user is helped through the process of determining what type of research it is, and answers a series of questions specific to the methods being used. This is crucial, because, just as different research methods are used to answer different research questions, different questions are relevant to assessing the quality of different methods.

Finally, the tool gives the user a summary of the answers they gave and what those answers might mean. Rather than giving a definitive judgement about whether the research is good or bad, the tool is designed to highlight the important aspects of the research in question and empower the user to make up their own mind. In truth, research is rarely completely good or completely bad – every study has limitations, and nearly every study has some merit. The key to using research effectively is to weigh up those strengths and weaknesses, as well as considering how relevant the research is to the specific circumstances that you are interested in.

Building knowledge

As well as the main critical appraisal tool, the Understanding Health Research website is full of useful information and background reading. We offer a guide to the essential step of learning how to read a scientific paper, as well as introductions to complex, but important, scientific concepts such as the difference between correlation and causation. As well as providing our own resources, we recognise that Understanding Health Research is just one part of a larger puzzle of health literacy, and we encourage our users to make use of other excellent resources, such as NHS Choices Behind the Headlines and Sense about Science’s Ask for Evidence campaign.

Understanding Health Research was made with input from a broad range of people with an interest in using health evidence, ranging from members of the public to academics. We designed our tool to be useful to as many different types of people as possible. Reading scientific research can be difficult, and scientific concepts can be complex, but we believe that by taking it step-by-step, everyone can understand health science. To find out how effective the tool is, we plan to carry out a formal evaluation, and to keep improving it in response to feedback from users. If you have any thoughts about Understanding Health Research, please do not hesitate to contact us, and together we can help to demystify scientific research for everyone.

Dr Amy Nimegeer & Chris Patterson

Amy and Chris are researchers at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow.

Images credits: Healthcare vector – Shutterstock/Hilch