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Understanding facts and figures in health news stories

An image of Lucy Hoppe
Clinical Evidence Manager at Bupa
23 September 2021

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by facts and figures when you see a health story in the news. Here, I’ll give some tips on how to understand health news stories – and help you separate fact from fiction.

Look beyond the headlines

News stories are designed to grab your attention. This often means they’re written in such a way to exaggerate the true figures. One of the most common tricks is to use what’s known as relative risk (how a risk increases or decreases) rather than the absolute figures. I’ll give you an example here to explain.

A news headline reports that the risk of having a heart attack “trebles” if you eat chocolate twice a week (don’t worry, this is just a made-up example!) This might sound like a lot, but if you look at the actual figures, you’ll begin to see the bigger picture. It could be that:

  • three out of 1,000 people who ate chocolate in the study had a heart attack
  • one out of 1,000 people who didn’t eat chocolate had a heart attack

So, although it’s true this equates to three times as many people, in real terms it’s actually only two more people out of 1,000. Perhaps a deeper look at the study would reveal other factors at play too. For instance, the people who ate chocolate may have had a poorer diet generally, or were overweight. Suddenly the increased risk doesn’t seem so big, despite the shocking and attention-grabbing headline.

Check the ranges

Another common trick is to use the higher end of a range. So you might see something reported as "Increases your risk by up to four times!" The red flag here is the phrase 'up to'. The actual study results might have shown your risk increases anywhere between two and four times.

Understanding numbers and statistics

You can see how important it is to look at the actual numbers, rather than just the headlines. But if statistics and numbers are not your strong point, this can seem very daunting. Taking some time to understand the basics can help you get to grips with this.

If your brain shuts down at the sight of a percentage sign (%) just remember it means ‘out of 100’.

So 20 per cent (%) of people means 20 out of every 100 people. That’s also the same as saying two out of 10. Watch out for news stories that use different proportions within the same article too, like two out of 10 and three out of 1,000. It can make it harder to compare.

When you’re dealing with lots of figures, it can help to think about actual numbers of people, and what this means in real life. The following rough scale may help.

  • One in 10 = one person in your extended family
  • One in 100 = one person in a street
  • One in 1,000 = one person in a village
  • One in 10,000 = one person in a small town
  • One in 100,000 = one person in a large town

How reliable is the data?

It’s not just about understanding the numbers. You also need to bear in mind how reliable the data is that’s being reported. First of all, read the story to find out whether it’s reporting on a published scientific study. If not, it could just be somebody’s opinion or initial findings that are yet to be properly checked and analysed.

Even if it is from a published study, not all clinical studies are equally reliable. Questions to ask include the following.

  • Is it an animal or a laboratory-based study? That doesn’t make it bad, it just means you can’t assume the results will be relevant to humans.
  • Is it a very small study, with only a few people? These aren’t as reliable as big studies or reviews including hundreds or thousands of people. They might not reveal all potential safety issues, and findings are more likely to be exaggerated.
  • Who is running or sponsoring the study? Think about whether it’s someone who could benefit from certain results or may be promoting a certain agenda. If so, you’ll need to be wary about bias (whether the organisation could have influenced the study outcomes).
  • Are the results ‘statistically significant’? This means that analysis of the results has shown that they aren’t just due to chance. If this is the case, it’s often reported alongside the results.
  • Is this the first or only study to show a particular outcome? It may well be reported as ground-breaking new research. But experts never rely on a single study – especially if it goes against current advice – and neither should you.

Making your own judgement

Finally, it’s important to keep an open mind and think about how relevant or important the story is to you. Try to put the findings into context of what else might be important too. For example, don’t look at a study reporting on the risk of vaccine side-effects in isolation. You also need to weigh it up against the risks of getting the disease it’s meant to prevent.

Most news stories will put a certain amount of ‘spin’ on the story to make it interesting. The author may frame results in a negative or positive light through the language they use. A news story that refers to ‘concerning’ or ‘worrying’ data immediately puts a negative spin on the findings. On the other hand, an article touting an ‘amazing breakthrough’ may give a false sense of hope.

Try to look past any unhelpful or unnecessary language and pull out the actual facts and relevant information. Then make your own judgment. Everyone sees risk differently, and what’s important to you may be very different to someone else.

Tips for reading health news stories

Here are my top tips for untangling health stories in the news.

  • Be prepared to take a health news story with a pinch of salt – read it with a critical eye.
  • Try not to get overwhelmed by the numbers. Think of percentages and statistics as actual numbers of people and what this means in ‘real life’.
  • Don’t be taken in by attention-grabbing headlines. Look for the actual numbers. They might be hidden away in the news story itself, or you might be able to look at the original research.
  • How is the story reported elsewhere? It’s worth looking at a range of news sources for that particular story. You might find an expert or a relevant charity who has commented on the story and given their professional opinion. Organisations displaying the PIF TICK mark follow high quality standards in producing reliable health information.
  • Draw your own conclusions and ignore any ‘spin’. Just because the author of the news story thinks the results are ‘shocking’ or ‘terrifying’ doesn’t mean you’ll agree!
  • Think carefully before you share a news story on social media. And likewise, don’t believe everything you read in social media comments.

How to find trustworthy health information

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An image of Lucy Hoppe
Lucy Hoppe
Clinical Evidence Manager at Bupa

    • Common events and risks in anaesthesia. Royal College of Anaesthetists, September 2019. www.rcoa.ac.uk

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