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Key Concepts for Assessing Treatment Claims: A New Blog Series

Posted on 6th June 2017 by

Tutorials and Fundamentals

Read all of the blogs in this series


“Drinking coffee reduces your liver cancer risk by 50%”

 “Powerful new HIV drug… is hailed a success”

“Eating plenty of salmon, mackerel and sardines protects against Alzheimer’s”

These are just a handful of claims about treatments you might have come across recently. But every day – in the news, in conversations with friends and family, while browsing the internet – we’re exposed to numerous claims like these. Making sense of treatment claims – whether they’re about drugs or diet – can be difficult. Claims may be biased, unsubstantiated, or inaccurate.

As difficult as it may be to assess treatment claims, it’s also essential. At best, making health decisions on the basis of unsubstantiated assertions is a waste of time and money. At worst, it can be harmful. But how can we make sense of it all?

To help us out, an Informed Health Choices project team have developed, and continually revise, a list of ‘Key Concepts’ that people may need to understand to assess treatment claims. Currently this list comprises 36 Key Concepts which individuals can apply to help decide whether:

  • The basis for a claim is reliable; i.e. whether it is based on fair comparisons of treatments. (A fair comparison being one which is designed to minimise the risk of errors).
  • The results of fair comparisons are relevant to you.
  • Additional information is needed to assess the reliability and relevance of claims about treatments and, if so, what information is needed” [1; p.113].

Medicine bottle with 'miracle cure' written on itAt Students 4 Best Evidence, we believe these Key Concepts are vital to help us think critically about the treatment claims we’re exposed to daily and we’re keen to raise awareness of them. As such, a group of over 10 students has been busy preparing a series of 36 blogs, one to explain and elaborate upon each of the Key Concepts. The first blog will be published on Monday 12th June. From then on, we’ll be publishing one or two blogs each week. Given current concerns about a proliferation of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, this series feels particularly timely.

We hope these blogs will highlight some important things to be aware of when you next read or hear a claim being made about a treatment. In each blog, we’ll also be pointing you towards lots of useful resources to further help you to think critically about treatment claims. You’ll be able to find all of the blogs on Facebook, Twitter and the Students 4 Best Evidence website and we welcome your comments.

Finally, a big thank you to all of the student bloggers involved and to Iain Chalmers, from Testing Treatments interactive, for his generous support and advice on the series.

  1. Austvoll-Dahlgren A, Oxman AD, Chalmers I, Nsangi A, Glenton C, Lewin S, Morelli A, Rosenbaum S, Semakula D, Sewankambo N. Key concepts that people need to understand to assess claims about treatment effects. J Evid Based Med. 2015 Aug;8(3):112-25. doi: 10.1111/jebm.12160.


Selena Ryan-Vig

Selena Ryan-Vig is a Knowledge Broker at Cochrane UK. Her role involves sharing Cochrane evidence in accessible ways, managing Cochrane UK's website and social media accounts, and producing newsletters. With a colleague, Selena delivers interactive sessions to students from Years 10 to 13 to teach about evidence-based practice and to encourage critical thinking, particularly around healthcare claims made in the media. She also co-delivers talks for students to raise awareness of Cochrane and reliable, evidence-based resources. She has a psychology degree from the University of Bath. During her degree, she worked for a national charity which provides support for young women. View more posts from Selena

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