More than ever, we have the power as individuals to make excellent healthcare decisions for ourselves and our families. Connectivity between patients and accessibility to research & education have proven to be powerful tools in fighting health battles, yet as a population we still do not leverage the information available to us very often.
It’s both too much and too little information at the same time. All the information in existence is of no use if we cannot extract and make use of the small portion that is relevant and credible. The stuff we really need is drowning in the stuff we don’t. This is why research often feels daunting and leads to many of us giving up.
To cut through the clutter and truly turn health research into a powerful tool, we recommend the following process:
A strong vocabulary on the health topic you are researching serves as the platform you need to effectively find and use the right materials. Vocabulary enables you to:
• Accurately articulate your symptoms and condition to your healthcare team and family
• Perform deeper research with more precision
• Understand and use deeper research when you read it
Let’s examine the case of a torn meniscus. Without a vocabulary, one would likely perform a web search for “knee injuries” or “knee pain”. The results of that search clearly illustrate that there will be lots of irrelevant information and much of it will be hard to understand because there is no foundation to build on.
It is much more productive to take some time up front to learn about the knee through a basic information tool such as WebMD. From there, it becomes much easier to perform more specific research on your symptoms and communicate accurately with your doctors.
Perhaps the biggest problem with having so much information available is that a large amount of it could actually be counterproductive or harmful. This fact can make research difficult to do with any sort of confidence. These rules of thumb will make deeper dives effective:
Source Credibility: Use objective, scientific content published by experts in the field. Scholarly journals are peer-reviewed and are reliable. Popular periodicals (e.g. magazines or newspapers) do not carry the same scientific rigor and are inherently subjective. Here is a concise guide to sourcing scholarly journals.
Timeliness: Newer is better! Look for the most up-to-date content for the topics you are researching.
Learn to Love Ambiguity: There will be times where two perfectly credible and up-to-date sources come to different conclusions. This is okay! There are very few situations in healthcare where there is one right answer to a problem. This is a perfect time to engage your doctor with your findings and think through what it means for you as an individual.
Embark on the Journey with a Friend: When we work with another person on research projects, our critical thinking abilities increase and we glean more insights from a session. If possible, engage someone to help you.
Research only becomes a powerful tool when put into action. The two keys to success are:
Make it About You: Pair your research findings with your own personal data (more on personal data here). In the case of our meniscal tear example, you should pair your research up with what you know about yourself: age, degree of soreness, range of motion, length of time you’ve had the pain, physical activities you were engaged in when pain first occurred, and so on. As you work with your doctors, data will be continuously generated. Track it! It will lead to even more specific research and actions you can take.
Team Up with Your Doctors: The value of consultations with your doctors exponentially increases when you come in as a well-researched patient. Your healthcare team is one of the best research resources because they can give you feedback right there on the spot, and they will ensure you are comfortable with your diagnosis and treatment. If you are transparent and comprehensive with your doctors, you will be able to competently and confidently fight any health battle.