How to Read a Research Study
A scientific or medical journal article is usually organized in the following sections:
- The abstract provides a quick summary and overview.
- The introduction describes what the researchers wanted to learn by conducting the research study.
- The methods section, also called research methods or methodology, provides information about the quality of the research study. It discusses:
- the characteristics of the research participants
- the method used to collect data
- the method used to conduct the research study
- The results section describes the study's specific and detailed findings.
- The discussion section summarizes the researchers' conclusions and the suggested steps for future research.
- The reference section lists the sources cited in the article.
Does the Research Apply to You?
Look for certain types of information about the people who participated in the research study. If you're reading a medical journal article, check the methods section.
Patient characteristics that may affect the study results (outcome) include:
- diagnosis, disease subtype and risk factors
- disease stage
- treatment stage
- age and overall health
Getting the Most from the Study
When using the study results to help you consider your treatment choices, keep the following facts in mind:
- Research results can show you how other people with a similar disease responded to different treatments, but they can't predict how any one person will respond. The fewer the patients in the study, the less accurate the prediction of likely outcomes is for others.
- Response rates and survival data for patients treated five or more years ago may not give a good picture of what patients can expect today. Long-term survival rates are not yet available for the newest treatments. At least five years must pass after the first groups of patients receive a specific treatment to establish the five-year survival rate for that treatment.
- Survival data alone won't tell you about treatment side effects or complications. (Two treatments with similar survival rates may have different results when it comes to side effects, long-term effects and quality of life.)
Talk with Your Doctor
Discuss all your treatment options with your doctor to ensure that you fully understand:
- the expected benefits
- the risks of side effects and complications
Ask your doctor for guidance in interpreting studies. You may also want to consider a second opinion consult.