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Making Sense of Medical News

What to Believe?

- Attention, parents: TV viewing can be harmful to kids!

- Attention, parents: TV viewing is not harmful to your kids!

Which is right? Depending on which story you came across, either is correct — at least for a time.

Researchers reported that young kids who watched a lot of television were prone to attention problems at school. But then 2 years later another study discounted that finding, concluding that kids with attention issues may, for a variety of reasons, simply watch more TV.

These conflicting headlines are just one example of how baffling medical news can be. What one study claims to be true may soon be disputed by another study. And with so many studies in the news and on the Internet, how do you know what's important, accurate, and relevant to your family's health?

The good news is you don't have to be a doctor or a scientist to sort it all out. There are some simple ways to evaluate what medical news means to your family. Then you can talk with your doctor about whether the news is relevant or appropriate as you make decisions about your child's health.

Distinguishing Medical Research From News Stories

There are some points to consider when reading or listening to a report on a health topic to help you determine whether to trust it and whether it's relevant to your family.

It takes a solid study to prove something substantial about health or treatments. And usually it takes years of many solid studies to confirm conclusions that doctors can stand behind in making decisions about health care for kids.

When you hear about a new medical development, the first questions to ask are: "Is it based on a scientific study?" and "What have the other studies of this issue shown?"

Many medical news reports rely on anecdotes — stories of people's experiences with a particular problem or treatment — rather than on documented findings.

Reporters often use personal stories to illustrate the impact that sensitive topics have on people. Personal stories are compelling, but by themselves they don't prove anything.

It's sometimes tough to tell the difference between news articles and advertisements. Ads can be designed to look like news. Check the fine print for the word "advertisement."

Websites often have names that sound authoritative, but are run by organizations or companies selling products. It's important to make sure that the sites you see are reliable.

Look for sites that are maintained by government agencies — they'll have .gov in their URL address — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), and by medical groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org).

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