• By Dana Sparks

Place New Scientific Findings into Proper Context

June 5, 2013

Coffee. It’s good for you one day … until a new study comes out and shows that it’s bad. Diabetes drugs are safe, and then they are not. Same story for use of Vitamin D supplements, hormone replacement therapy and fish oil.

“We frequently hear contradictory reports about medical topics,” says M. Hassan Murad, M.D., Mayo Clinic Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery and co-author of a commentary on synthesizing medical evidence in this week’s The Journal of the American Medical Association.  “The problem is that science, medicine and the media too often focus on the latest study and largely ignore the overall body of evidence.”  The body of evidence, explains Dr. Murad, is the collective knowledge on a particular medical topic.

Co-author Victor Montori, M.D., also with the Mayo Clinic Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery, says, “Science advances through the accumulation of evidence - not by one study providing the definitive answer. However, we tend to focus on the newest evidence without putting it into context. The blockbusters and breakthroughs create public expectations and disappointments, and this makes people distrust medical research.”

In their commentary, Drs. Murad and Montori recommend that scientists, medical journals and the media refrain from drawing conclusions or recommendations from the results of single studies. Instead, they say, studies should be prohibited from offering conclusions unless they place their findings in the context of all the literature on the topic. It is these summaries, perhaps less newsworthy or flashy but certainly more stable and likely to be true, that people should use to make informed medical decisions.

Here, Drs. Murad and Montori discuss the importance of knowledge synthesis to advancing medicine.