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How to Read Health Studies (& Why It Matters!)

Reading research but unsure what it exactly means? Learn the value of studies when learning health information and steps to better understand research papers and studies!

How to Read Health Studies (& Why It Matters!)


With thousands of health research studies at our fingertips, it can feel tiresome and intimidating to sift through it all. Most people want quick answers, like X causes Y. 

However, understanding studies well requires critical thinking and nuance. Thankfully, a few tips and tricks can teach you how to read health studies correctly and efficiently. 

Why Is Understanding Health Studies Important?

Many people consider health research and experimental studies lengthy and boring. In some respects, it can be. 

Nonetheless, despite these negative associations, research studies can also be remarkable and enlightening. Plus, ultimately, concrete data and conclusive analysis are needed to make evidence-based health and medical recommendations. 

While health research studies are not the end-all-be-all, especially in the Eastern medical sphere, they certainly pave the way for Western health treatment. The best doctors and medical professionals in the world rely on progressive health studies to develop new and innovative treatment methods and protocols. 

Although these medical professionals are typically the ones scavenging health studies, it's also important for consumers to understand what research articles are truly saying and recommending. After all, the findings of studies are often applied and tried on consumers. 

Funding Of Research

Perhaps the most important aspect of health research is understanding the why and how. Why was the study conducted in the first place and how or who funded it? This is important for a couple of reasons.

Typically, health studies are performed when there is a major need. For example, tons of health research exists around factors that influence cardiac health because heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Much less research is available concerning lesser-known health conditions like Adenomyosis or rare genetic abnormalities. 

For better or worse, funding companies want to exploit research that will reach and/or affect the most people because they then stand to reap the most amount of potential monetary benefit. No matter the good intentions of the research, at the end of the day, research is still partly a business just like most other industries. 

Overall, it is very wise to pay attention and understand the funding agencies of the studies being performed. Keeping this in mind, learn how to interpret research articles and studies accurately and efficiently below.

Types of Research Studies

As you will see below, most studies have the same format: an abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and references.

With that being said, there are various types of clinical study designs and these have major implications for their meaning. A systematic literature review is wildly different from a randomized controlled trial, which is still vastly different from a prospective observational study.

Meta-Analysis

Combining data from many different research studies. It's a statistical process that combines findings from individual studies, typically surrounding one topic. 

For example, one lengthy article might summarize the findings of twenty different studies conducted on depression outcomes after physical activity interventions. These 'studies' cannot draw cause and effect outcomes whatsoever.

Systematic Review

Similar to a meta-analysis but much more comprehensive, a systematic review is a critical assessment and evaluation of all research studies that address a particular area of study. Researchers utilize a systematic method of locating, assembling, and evaluating a body of literature, keeping in mind certain criteria of the studies. 

It typically includes a collection of the research studies and a description of the major findings along with sometimes offering quantitative pools of data called the meta-analysis.

Randomized Control Trial

Abbreviated as RTC, randomized control trials are the gold standard of clinical research. This is the main type of study that will produce cause and effect or highly correlatable results.

Participants are randomly assigned interventions, and researchers and participants do not know which intervention they are receiving. These trials try to account for as many confounding variables as possible, deeming conclusions as the most validated, reliable, and accurate. 

Prospective Observational Study (Cohort Study)

In this type of study, people who present with a certain condition or who receive a particular treatment modality are followed over time. They are particularly compared to people who are not affected by the condition or treatment. Researchers then draw observational conclusions about the conditions and treatment approaches. 

Recognize that it is much more difficult to account for confounding variables. AKA, these types of studies cannot usually declare a cause and effect distinction.

Case-Control Study

These types of studies begin with the outcomes and do not follow people over long amounts of time. Researchers choose participants with particular conditions or traits and interview the groups. They also check the participants’ records to distinguish different experiences that could have affected their outcomes. 

The ultimate motive is to compare the odds of having an experience with the outcome to the odds of having the experience without the outcome. Again, a cause-and-effect distinction cannot be outright stated.

Cross-Sectional Study

These studies observe defined populations at a single point in time or interval of time. The exposure and outcome are determined simultaneously. In other words, variables are studied without actually influencing them in any way.

Other types of studies include case reports, case series, editorials and opinions, animal research studies, and test-tube lab research.

Deciphering Health Studies

Luckily most studies have the same format:

• Abstract
• Introduction
• Methods
• Results
• Discussion
• References

We will dive into each!

Abstract

This is the brief paragraph found conveniently at the top of most research articles. They contain concise key points of the research study and identify the major takeaways and often include one or two sentences concerning each subsequent section of the paper. 

Abstracts are wonderful for those in a time crunch or those looking to extract a very simplified aspect of the study. However, the abstracts are very general and can make it seem like the study has a clear-cut cause-and-effect schema that is much more nuanced in the body of the article. 

Nonetheless, they are typically free whereas entire studies sometimes require a fee to be read in full.

Introduction

This section establishes the entirety of the research and shapes the framework of the purpose of the study. Remember that research is conducted on an at-need basis. 

The introduction often includes:

• Current statistics
• Previous research on the subject
• Why this study is needed right now

It usually ends with a research question or in other words, the infamous hypothesis. Think of this section as the important background information.

Methods

The methods section aims to identify the specific parameters of the study including:

• Who was involved
• The number of starting and ending participants
• Equipment used
• Procedures and protocols
• Variables

It is especially important to assess how they accounted for confounding variables in this section. 

Results

This section is a quantitative compilation of statistical analysis, usually in the form of numbered tests, tables, figures, and graphs. For those lacking statistical experience, this section can be disheartening, often discussing things like:

• Regression analysis
• Significant p-values
• Standard deviations
• A bunch of other advanced reading

It might be better to skim this section if there is little understanding of statistics. This is because findings can be falsely interpreted or skewed heavily.

Discussion and Conclusion

These titles are used interchangeably and sometimes simultaneously. The discussion section aims to explain the research in much less technical terms than the previous results section. It links the research to the main purpose and objective of the study and aims to answer questions like: 

• Did the results confirm the hypothesis?
• How do the results contribute to current and further knowledge? 
• Is more research needed? 
• What were the limitations of the study? 

This or these sections often encompass the meat and potatoes of the entire article. Those looking for explicit conclusions should pay close attention to these sections while also remembering the nuance of research as a whole.

References

An overlooked area, the references elucidate the sources used to formulate the literature review and put the data into application. Taking a look at these sometimes provides insight into funding sources and can offer places to look for more information regarding the research or topic.

The Bottom Line

Health research is a beast of an undertaking. There is so much available information, some of it groundbreaking and revolutionary while other studies are confusing and misleading. 

As an inevitable consumer of some health products and services, it is smart to have a basic understanding of how to interpret and analyze health research studies. Knowing what each section of the research article means and includes, and learning why and how the study was funded, are great starting points. 

Do not be discouraged by confusing words and numbers! Instead, pull out the most relevant information usually provided in the abstract and discussion or conclusion sections. 

Reference:

Literature Reviews: Types of Clinical Study Designs. GSU Library Research Guides. March 11, 2022. https://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115595&p=755213.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on March 11, 2016. Updated on August 11, 2022.

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