The Kinds of Health Research Papers I like to Study

I love Google Alerts Scholar because it updates me on recent health research studies.  I receive weekly updates on publications on a world wide basis. There are certain studies that I am really keen on reading because they offer the best insights on health matters.

I’ve spent some of my career working for the federal government in the drug approval area. Our job was to examine the studies that drug companies used to justify their health claims. They had to supply us with the scientific evidence that led to their therapeutic indications. We needed to analyze their data and ascertain whether their submission was valid.

One kind of study is called a two arm study. This is where a drug is compared against a control group each group. The control group is a set of participants who receive a placebo and the observed or reported therapeutic benefits are recorded. This is useful in determining the effectiveness of a new treatment.

Another kind of study is a three arm trial. In this clinical trial design, one group is the placebo, another receives the treatment under study and a third group may receive an established treatment regime. The power of this type of study is that it cover both effectiveness and allows for comparison against an established treatment to see if it is better or worse than the conventional method.

USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus.
USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus.

I really like reading the three arm trials. When looking at lifestyle effects on health, I find these most revealing. My particular interest is in nutritional research as well as studies exploring the benefits of  physical activity like yoga. In a two arm study, if one uses a control group of sedentary subjects compared to a group who participate in a physical activity – the result is a foregone conclusion. The active group will always have better health outcomes than the control group.

However, the type of study I find very useful is where there is a control group, and two physical activity arms; for example, one with yoga and one with walking. In this kind of study, you will  find that yoga is better than doing nothing – but more importantly – you can determine if yoga was better than walking.  This type of study design can also incorporate one where there is a control group, a walking group and a walking plus yoga group to examine the potential additive benefits.

Meta-data studies are gaining popularity with the easy access to published scientific literature online. They look at past studies and attempt to find overarching results. The problem is that if past studies have not been conducted very well or extensively, the best summary of results will be “inconclusive” benefits. I find meta-data studies to be of limited usefulness for emerging research topics.

There you have it. I find two arm studies are useful. However, I prefer three arm research papers because they offer the best insights.

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