Lisa Baker is a childbirth educator and mother of two in Calgary, Alberta. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you the type of person to research a product before buying? Would you rather figure things out for yourself then listen to a salesperson throw you a pitch? In the field of pregnancy and childbirth there are countless studies on best practices during these life-changing events. Trying to read through these research findings can feel like you are learning a new language. There may be unfamiliar words, strange statistics, and results that disagree with current recommendations. Luckily, understanding research findings is not an impossible task. Today we will look at ways to help you make sense of health – related studies.
Not all studies are created equal. Some pieces of research are more reliable than others. Here are some basic questions to ask when reading through research articles:
Who is the author and what is their motivation?
Bias in research is a huge topic that is worthy of its own textbook! Nevertheless we can discuss the basic principles regarding biased results. When looking at research try to figure out:
a) who conducted the research and are they qualified to speak on the topic (what are their credentials, have they been studying this particular topic for a while, have they been supported by other experts in the field)
b) if the author makes money from the product that is being researched
c) if the study is funded by the makers of the product being studied
d) if the purpose of the study is to get the reader to buy something
e) if the study has been peer-reviewed. This means other unrelated researchers have carefully read through the study and determined it was good enough research to be published
The answers to the questions above can help you decide if the results may be biased towards one outcome or another. The less bias in a study, the more reliable the results tend to be.
Who was included in the study?
The most informative pieces of research look at many different people in many different settings. Research involving 10,000 women from several different countries and several different researchers tends to be more reliable than a single case study involving 5 women in the same hospital. When many women in many settings have the same results, chances are better that the intervention or technique being studied has a true affect. If the study involves only a handful of individuals there is a greater possibility that something else besides the intervention may have caused the observed results. This is why national organizations and hospitals will not change routine policies until there is a large amount of research that supports using or getting rid of an intervention. Policy changes are usually guided by systematic reviews, which are pieces of research that look at all of the studies on a subject and pool the results together to create a very large population. Keep in mind a single study will not give you the full picture. Looking at all the studies on a single topic will give you a much broader understanding of the intervention being studied.
What is the relationship between the intervention being studied and the results?
Saying that intervention X caused result Y is quite different than saying there is a correlation between intervention X and result Y. Suppose for a minute a study was published that found women who chewed gum in pregnancy were more likely to have male children. If the results say chewing gum caused women to have male children, we would assume that the gum was involving in gender determination. If the results say that a correlation was found between chewing gum and having male children, we only know that the two things are somehow related. We do not know if chewing gum determined the gender of the baby OR if mothers with male children crave gum more than mothers with female children. Both situations would lead to a correlation between gum and gender, but only one of those situations would mean that chewing gum actually increases the chance of having a male child. Of course there is no truth to the scenario I just described. I simply used the gum and gender scenario to make a point that just because two things are linked together or correlated does not mean that the intervention in question caused the observed result.
There are many factors to consider when critically evaluating a piece of research. The questions we have just discussed are a good starting point for evaluating the research that you come across in your reading. For more information, please check out some of the websites below. They offer a more extensive look into the world of research and how to make sense of it all.
Sources for more information
Informed Choice in Childbirth by Henci Goer
The Cochrane Collaboration (Home of many high quality systematic reviews in medical and healthcare research.)