Reading Between the Lines on Research – Part Two

I promised you an explanation of RCTs – here goes (brace yourself).  You are a big pharmaceutical company and you want to know if your (very expensive) drug works.  You get yourself a number of people who are happy to go on a drug trial.  Many people with a disease, such as cancer, willingly take part in trials to possibly help themselves and to help others. You gather a significant group of people and as far as possible, control for other variables (more about this later). You divide the group into two and give one half the new drug and the other half get a placebo – in this instance a tablet that looks the same as the real drug. Neither you nor the person on the trial know if the tablet is the real thing or just a dummy tablet.  

Of course, the anonymised data programme knows what is actually happening. The interesting bit is in the results. If everyone gets better then the drug probably doesn’t make any difference (but, I hear you say, those who were getting the dummy tablet might have thought they were getting the real thing and got better that way). If there is no measurable difference in the health of anyone then the drug probably doesn’t work either.  

Excitingly, if after the results have been analysed using the stored anonymous data shows improvements in those who took the real tablet then the drug manufacturer is probably onto a winner. Of course, this process is hugely expensive and needs careful monitoring and ethical considerations. How would you feel about maybe not getting the drug that might help you? Next time you read about a ‘wonder drug’ consider the tests it might / should have gone through.  

And what of those variables? 

How about ‘research shows that poorly educated people weigh more than people who go to university’.  

I would want to know;

  • Are they all the same age?
  • Are there any gender differences?
  • Did anyone in the study have any health issues?
  • Are there any racial considerations?
  • What occupation differences are there?  
  • What weight range have they been in all their lives?
  • What questions were asked?

And of course, who sponsored the research? 

Why was the research done? 

If the research is carried out by a famous and wealthy organisation would it alter the results?  

Let me put a scenario to you. You answer the phone or fill in an online questionnaire.  The questions are;

  • Could you help us with some research?
  • Are you a woman?
  • Do you weigh more than you used to?
  • Would you like to do something about it?
  • Would you trial our no obligation weight management packs?

See what I mean? Ask 20 women those questions and you have ‘carried out your research’. It’s a great headline and an easy way to get your product used.  But you can see past those headlines now. Be sceptical and ask questions before you trust the ‘research shows us’ headlines.  


This blog was written by Marion Foreman

Marion is a nurse with many years’ experience and a personal trainer. Her two specialist areas are training older people and training people on their cancer journey. Marion sometimes works with very elderly people in care homes, helping them to remain mobile and independent.

Marion and her husband own two gyms and are passionate about helping people to be their best. Marion is always keen to make sure that their members are given up to date and relevant advice about living a healthy life style.

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