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Science and Evidence That’s Readable By Average Folks? It Does Exist!

There’s a lot of discussion – online, at conferences, and in clinical care settings – about “evidence-based medicine.” There is some disagreement (no surprise) on the idea that any medicine is done-and-dusted on the science and evidence front, since science itself is a process of ongoing discovery. And even those discoveries can get called into question when further research reveals that the science behind a treatment, or a diagnostic norm, is a “nope, not really.” Dr. Vinay Prasad [1] and Dr. Adam Cifu [2] wrote the actual book on that, “Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives [3].”

But medical reversal isn’t what I’m going to focus on in this post. Helping people, the ones called patients, figure out how to learn about medical evidence, how it’s created, and how to keep track of new ideas – including medical reversal – is what I’m up to this month. So, let’s dive in.

Where should an average human look for scientific information that matters to them about their own condition or disease, or a condition or disease affecting a loved one? Articles in scientific journals are not written for easy reading by non-scientists, but anyone can join in if they follow the process outlined in this post from December 2017 [4]. (full disclosure: written by yours truly).

Using that approach, you can read scientific papers published on the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed [5], which is a treasure trove for anyone with a science-geek bent. Not all the articles in PubMed are available in full text, but you can get the abstract (the research question, essentially), and the DOI, the identifying number for the article. Getting the full text version of a journal article can be as simple as going to a medical library [6], if there’s one in your area. You can also see if your local library has access to the journal you’re interested in. There’s a handy tip sheet on the Journalist’s Resource site [7] that’s got all the ways we journalists can sherlock our way into getting the full text of an academic paper.

In service of doing the ongoing work of testing the science that gets published as emerging medical evidence, researchers around the world are refining and testing that published evidence. The Cochrane Library [8], part of the global medical evidence testing project the Cochrane Collaboration [9], has a wealth of information on how researchers test published results in processes called evidence synthesis [10] and meta-analysis [11], reporting on whether the “evidence” really is evidence for treatment or diagnosis. Cochrane also has a global consumer network [12], where anyone can learn about how evidence is created, and get involved in working to refine and assess the science behind it.

If you’re just looking for information on your particular condition or issue, to help you understand what you’re dealing with and get the details you need to work with your clinical team on making decisions, you can ask your team for recommendations on information sources that are written for average humans. There’s no comprehensive library of those resources, but they do exist. One example, for cancer patients, is the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Cancer.net [13] site, which is a deep dive, written in plain English, into the diagnosis, treatment, and outcome stats on all forms of cancer.

On the emerging-science front, the last twenty years has seen the emergence of the science of patient engagement, and patient experience [14]. An example of an ongoing effort in that area is the Patient Experience Library [15], launched in 2016. Their reports and quarterly magazines are a great way to track that emerging science, and follow how it’s being embraced, or resisted, by the hard-science side of medical evidence and treatment discovery.

Science is a process, not an endpoint. Anyone who’s interested in furthering that process can participate – “citizen science” [16] is an emerging discipline that’s having an impact in many scientific fields, including medicine. Join in, and speed up discovery!


Links:

[1] Dr. Vinay Prasad

[2] Dr. Adam Cifu

[3] Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives

[4] this post from December 2017

[5] National Library of Medicine’s PubMed

[6] medical library

[7] handy tip sheet on the Journalist’s Resource site

[8] Cochrane Library

[9] Cochrane Collaboration

[10] evidence synthesis

[11] meta-analysis

[12] Cochrane also has a global consumer network

[13] American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Cancer.net

[14] patient engagement, and patient experience

[15] Patient Experience Library

[16] citizen science

“The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.”

Too often, healthcare outcomes on the ground level feel like a roll of the dice – there seems to be very little certainty about what’s going to happen, despite clinicians’ efforts to explain treatment options and patients’ attempts to understand what’s happening in the treatment process. The endless drumbeat of “scientific breakthrough” headlines of varying accuracy, or even veracity, adds even more of a casino-odds vibe to the experience of dealing with a challenging diagnosis like cancer or Parkinson’s.

The title of this post is an apocryphal quote attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson (his Twitter handle is @GreatDismal, and he’s definitely worth a follow) – it’s an aphorism I find myself using almost daily at this point, particularly when I’m participating in conversations, either in person or digital, about emerging trends in clinical research, clinical trials, and health system innovation. There are strong indications that healthcare, and the science that underpins it, is moving in a direction that will deliver up the “faster cures” that everyone affected by challenging or life-threatening conditions is anxiously awaiting.

Some of the signal I’m picking up comes from the scientific community itself, with organizations like Cochrane working to make science more accessible, and accurately reported, for everyone. Cochrane runs a rigorous systematic review process on clinical research studies and trials reporting, and has built a Consumer Network and a public-facing platform called Cochrane Crowd where anyone can become a citizen scientist (there’s a training program!) and then jump in to help assess and review clinical studies. I wrote an overview of Cochrane last year after attending the 2018 Cochrane Colloquium annual meeting in Edinburgh last September, which you can read here for a full 411 on all things Cochrane.

Another signal source for emerging indications of “future is here” is the increasing number of journal articles talking about making public engagement in research, and in healthcare system redesign and innovation, an actual thing vs. a “nice to have” or a box to check on a list from the marketing department. A recent example on that one is “Public engagement can fight against health inequalities—but only if we do it right” by Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, in The BMJ. Another example is a one day conference I attended recently, put together by the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI) and the US FDA, “Enhancing the Incorporation of Patient Perspectives in Clinical Trials.” I attend a lot of scientific and policy conferences and events, where I usually find myself grinding my teeth at the still-evident paternalism and “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that threads through medical science and health policymaking.

The CTTI/FDA event didn’t get my jaw clenched (much) – there were patients with lived experience and expertise on each panel at the event, with Donna Cryer, a lawyer and liver disease expert/advocate/activist, giving the opening keynote. Life sciences companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Takeda had representation, too, and all spoke clearly about the need for people/patients to be in on creating clinical trial protocol design that includes data release to study participants, and better research questions developed with patient input. On the revolutionary-thinking “future is here” front, there’s even an emerging idea of establishing clinical trial participant benefit trusts, where people who participate in drug trials are beneficiaries of trust funds established with stock options for drugs that are approved, and go to market. I’ll give you three guesses on who stepped up to the microphone in the Q&A session to talk about that idea [spoiler: yes, it was me].

My point is that the future is here, and it will be as evenly distributed as you, I, and the rest of the community at large – the public! – work to spread it around. The distribution network is us. Join Cochrane Consumer Network, start participating on Cochrane Crowd, spread the word on clinical trials that can benefit your community, and encourage your community to reach out to researchers at local universities and medical centers to offer to help design and launch clinical studies and trials that matter to the community itself. Citizen science isn’t just an idea, it’s jet fuel to get us to the future, faster.