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Tips for understanding the medical literature

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Medical literature - reviews, papers reporting clinical studies, guidelines, promotional material, presentations, professional and patient websites, and so on - strongly influence clinical management, prescribing and attitudes to disease. A point that's not lost on drug and device manufacturers. As Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, noted: 'For a drug company, a favourable trial is worth thousands of pages of advertising… The quality of the journal will bless the quality of the drug.'1

Most medical literature comes directly from pharmaceutical companies (promotional material and meetings) or indirectly (sponsored clinical studies and medical education), and may, therefore, be biased.2,3 This feature discusses some of the traps that can catch uncritical readers and offers some suggestions in helping to decide whether the literature is relevant to your practice.

Know thyself

Before we approach any paper or presentation, we need to recognise that we usually favour arguments that confirm our existing biases, beliefs and practices. Unless we are aware of this tendency - which psychologists call 'confirmation bias' - we may ignore, dismiss or marginalise information that contradicts conclusions we already favour.4

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