Navigating clinical research in a world of misinformation, Part 1: Foundations of Clinical Research

September 7, 2021   |   Evidence in Integrative Healthcare

The spread of health misinformation was declared a serious public health threat by the U.S. Surgeon General. Before accepting new clinical information that appears sensational, emotionally charged, or reminiscent of “click bate,” find the original study and evaluate it. Scientific research is often a careful, iterative process that reveals limited amounts of information at a time. A dramatic or over-reaching conclusion can be a sign of misinformation.

Understanding the foundations of clinical research design can assist in identifying misinformation and better educating our patients. As an example, evidence-based information regarding quantitative analysis, such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs), will generally have components of “PICOTS:”

  1. Population/Patient/Problem – the condition/injury, age, gender, and other characteristics of the subjects in the study
  2. Intervention – the specific treatment/intervention under investigation, including relevant details such as intensity/dose, frequency, and duration
  3. Comparator/Control – the “treatment” characteristics of the control group, such as a placebo, no care, standard care, or other type of care
  4. Outcome – the outcome measure and results; usually something quantifiable like a pain rating, symptom frequency, or questionnaire score
  5. Timeframe – the duration the study lasted or the time between outcome measures; typically, a period before and after the intervention(s)
  6. Setting – where the study took place, such as in a hospital, type of clinic, or home setting

Application of a study’s findings is typically limited to the study’s PICOTS parameters. If health information is presented to you in a way that dramatizes or over-simplifies the conclusion – such as omitting key components of PICOTS, think twice about sharing it on social media or with patients.