Making Sense of a Sea of Health Data

Published on
December 4, 2009

Have you ever wanted to pick the brain of an investigative reporter? The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows (Twitter hashtag #cahealthfellows) got the chance with former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Bill Heisel, who also writes the thrice-weekly Antidote blog for Center for Health Journalism Digital. 

Heisel, now senior communications officer with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle offered a wealth of advice for reporters struggling to make sense of often complex health data.

"Think like a cop reporter, think like a business reporter, not just 'my health beat is about doctors and hospitals,'" he said.

The best way to take advantage of Bill's expertise is to read his detailed tip sheet on finding great stories in a sea of health data. Here's an excerpt:

The medical beat is so rich with documents and data that it can be hard to sort through everything. This is my humble attempt to break down the most useful sources for records to give your stories heft.

SOURCE: The Cochrane Library 

WHAT IT DOES: Collects medical and scientific research. Performs massive reviews of the available literature to weigh the evidence. These reviews usually include a "plain language summary" to help you understand the importance of the findings.

WHAT IT DOES NOT DO: The Cochrane research panel will leave out research it deems flawed or too small in scope. This can be a good way for you to weed out weak research, but you should make sure you understand the exclusion criteria.

RECORDS: Confused by all the seeming conflicts between studies of things like cholesterol and mammograms? The Cochrane Library gives you a great way to search meta-analyses that encompass decades of research. It can be a useful tool for broader understanding. You can read the summaries of the findings for free, and you can get the full documents for a subscription fee. You can search the entire site or you can click on the library link just to search for the meta-analyses. If you are a member of the Association of Health  Care Journalists, you can get free access to all of the records.

DRAWBACKS: Questions sometimes arise on whether conclusions can be drawn from studies that have different methodologies. 

SUGGESTION: The next time you see a report about a "breakthrough," plug the type of treatment or condition into the Cochrane Library search engine. That's a quick way for you to become familiar with the breadth of the science out there and know which questions to ask the researchers touting the latest advance.