Friday, 26 August 2011

When medical research can be a waste of money

In my third year at University, I specialised in clinical pharmacology, an option heavily biased to research. It is a fascinating subject and I took part in several clinical trials designed to assess the efficacy and safety of beta blockers. I am therefore an advocate and close follower of medical research, but I am bemused at the nonsensical studies that are on the increase. The latest of these is the mind blowing discovery that marriage and/or divorce can cause an increase in women’s weight. This is the type of study that I now label as ‘duh’ research. (The urban dictionary defines ‘duh’ as ‘no sh*t Sherlock’ or ‘thank you Captain Obvious’ – love it)

The study, recently presented to the American Sociological Society followed over 10,000 people, measuring changes in marital status and Body Mass Index. Apparently newly married women are at greatest risk of health gains according to the authors from Ohio State University.

As a spokesperson from the British Nutrition Foundation said ‘these are significant changes in someone’s life. It can change their living situation and the types of food they eat’. Sorry – but that statement warrants a ‘duh’ too.

During my research days, I was taught that there are three fundamentals to a valid study:
1)     The objectives should be clearly stated
2)     The measurement methods must be robust and where possible, completely objective
3)     There must be a point to the research

Alas, in my opinion, this study fails on most counts. There are so many other variables not measured that the results are of little value. And what does the health sector intend to do with this information I wonder?

We are bombarded daily with new research, often with very little real value. Yes, mothers who over eat during pregnancy often end up with fat children. Not really rocket science. Yes, in many women (and men) emotional triggers play a key role in eating behaviours.

Much health research is life saving and life enhancing. Drug trials of course are a given, and retrospective studies such as links to baby sleeping position and cot death and the effects of smoking are dramatic examples of the vital work that researchers undertake.

I wish that researchers would stick to the basics, and academic and medical institutions closely assess the cost benefit ratio of each protocol before they proceed. These fluffy and inconsequential studies are affecting my emotional wellbeing….. now where’s that biscuit tin….?


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