Understanding evidence: Cochrane UK’s new series

Cochrane UK’s Director, Martin Burton, introduces our new series Understanding Evidence, created in partnership with Students 4 Best Evidence, which kicks off today with a week of blogs. 

Life is full of choices, and choice is important. Choosing different options when it comes to health care – particularly your own health care – is a serious matter. You don’t want to get it wrong.

Who needs to understand evidence?

Patients and doctors need to understand evidence so the can make informed decisions together

Patients and clinicians need to understand evidence so they can make informed decisions together

I have sometimes thought that when patients are sitting in the waiting room of my outpatient clinic I should offer them a choice of consultation style. When they come and see me, do they want a rather old-fashioned, paternalistic, ‘doctor knows best’ type of consultation? One where I listen to them and then prescribe a treatment or other course of action. Or do they want the opposite; to be presented with a complete set of options and choices, a set of internet references and bundle of written materials so they can go away and make up their own minds.

In my view, the optimal consultation involves “shared decision-making”. One in which I and the patient together consider their options in the context of their values and beliefs and their attitude towards risk and uncertainty.   Both of us need to understand the evidence relating to the decisions that are being made. Evidence for example about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of different treatments and the risks associated with those treatments. Evidence too about the accuracy of diagnostic tests and about prognosis. And perhaps sometimes – and maybe increasingly – evidence about the “cost-effectiveness” of different options.

All this requires a clear understanding of evidence. In a particular circumstance what is good evidence and what is bad? Indeed, what do we mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this situation. The term “evidence-based” is bandied around a lot these days. I suspect not always appropriately.

Towards a better understanding

We are launching a series of blogs to better help readers understand the use of evidence. The principles of evidence-based medicine dictate that ‘current best evidence’ should be brought to bear ‘conscientiously, explicitly and judiciously’ in making healthcare decisions.

‘Best evidence’ may come from a variety of sources. Systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – such as those produced by Cochrane and published in the Cochrane Library – rank highest in the evidence hierarchy. Followed by RCTs themselves and then studies of other designs. Expert opinion and “mechanism-based reasoning” rank lowest. Understanding reports of systematic reviews, RCTs and other studies is critical. Unfortunately, just because something is published – on paper or on the internet – doesn’t mean you can believe it.

We hope this series will allow you to hone your skills so you can look critically at evidence and understand its strengths and weaknesses. A better understanding of evidence should – hopefully – allow you to make better choices about your own health care, or that of your family or patients. It should also help you, on a day-to-day basis, to look critically at news stories about health and to be rightly sceptical when things are labelled “evidence-based”.

Read all of the Understanding Evidence blogs here

Join in the conversation on Twitter with @mjburton @CochraneUK @Students4BE and @SarahChapman30 #understandingevidence

 

Related Post


Martin Burton

About Martin Burton

view all posts

Martin Burton is Director of the UK Cochrane Centre, the unit responsible for supporting Cochrane activities in the UK & Ireland. He is Professor of Otolaryngology, University of Oxford, Honorary Consultant Otolaryngologist, Oxford University Hospitals NHSFoundation Trust and Fellow in Clinical Medicine at Balliol College. He is joint co-ordinating editor of the Cochrane ENT Disorders Group.

5 Comments on this post

  1. Nice one. Looking forward to this.

    Yakubu / Reply
  2. Excelente.

    Adriana Julieth aranda / Reply
  3. Very good presentation today on shortcomings and misunderstanding from systematic review of oral immunotherapy at the FAAM meeting in Rome.
    Rubbish in rubbish out! Need to critically examine the evidence and ensure homogeneity of the studies!
    Too much is often claimed of Cochrane!

    Michael Bone / Reply
  4. very important matter indeed to both patients and clinicians.

    Firyalushi / Reply
  5. I hope you will be candid about the limitations of RCTs (and systematic reviews of RCTs). They are a gold standard for a particular type of intervention – typically where one thing can be varied and everything else can be held constant or adjusted for, most obviously prescribing a drug. They are not that good for understanding the impact of policy changes (introducing a sugar tax or imposingf mandatory seat belts) or the emergence of new technologies (the rise of e-cigarettes or personal fitness monitors – I mention these because there have been misleading RCTs about both).

    As soon as behaviour change is involved many more factors and external influences come into play and it is rarely realistic or possible to control for them all.

    Clive Bates / Reply

Leave a Reply to Yakubu Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

UA-49496932-1