It's probably happened to you more than once. You're half-listening to the radio or television, and you hear a news report about a medical breakthrough just published in a prominent journal. You want to know more, but the story's over!
Where do you turn to learn more? Asking your doctor is always a good idea, and you could always purchase a copy of the medical journal. But today, more and more people are going directly to the source at no charge: the Web sites of two of the nation's most prestigious medical journals: the New England Journal of Medicine (http://www.nejm.org) and the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (http://www.ama-assn.org/public/journals/jama/).
Studies appearing in these journals make headlines almost every week. And the journals frequently publish important studies that aren't quite important enough to make the evening news or local newspaper.
Of the two journal sites, the JAMA site is especially consumer-friendly.
JAMA is the AMA's official journal, while the New England Journal of Medicine is published by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Both are "peer-reviewed," which means a group of experts agree that the articles are accurate, significant and worthy of publication. And both journals note that the views represented in the articles are those of the study's authors, not the medical associations.
So let's say you just heard a snippet of a report on CNN about a JAMA study on an herbal weight-loss product. You can go to JAMA's site and select the recent article on garcinia cambogia, or G cambogia, an anti-obesity compound that contains hydroxycitric acid. I suggest heading directly to the "objective," "results" and "conclusion," where you'll find that G cambogia "failed to produce significant weight loss and fat-mass loss beyond that observed with placebo." In other words, it didn't make losing weight any easier.
The easy-to-navigate JAMA site also has a "latest news" section, where you'll find "science news update." This collection of news releases summarizes articles in the journal's current issue. The updates are available to the public after 1 p.m. Pacific time on the first four Tuesdays of each month. These summaries, which highlight the most important information up front, are more consumer-friendly than the actual articles. And you can be sure if you heard the story on the news, you'll be able to find the release.
On both the JAMA and NEJM sites, research abstracts are available to you with a click of your mouse, even if you're not a subscriber or a medical professional. The full text of articles is only available to subscribers to the print publications. But unless you're a medical professional, you probably won't want any more information.
JAMA's "patient pages" are a gem if you want the basic facts on a condition in plain English. There are about 27 of these pages on prominent conditions, such as heart attacks, antibiotic resistance, the common cold, stroke and diabetes.
I was impressed with the page on prostate cancer: a concise definition, a complete list of treatment options, risk factors, symptoms, references to JAMA articles and a list of additional sources. Finding such information written in a clear manner would have required searching for it in several different places at least. But on the JAMA site, it's all right there.
For more in-depth medical information, JAMA has six "information centers." These peer-reviewed collections of resources on specific conditions are produced by JAMA medical editors and made possible with grant support from leading pharmaceutical companies, which are prominently noted. The current centers include HIV/AIDS, asthma, migraine, women's health, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.
I looked at the Asthma Information Center and was surprised to learn that two-thirds of asthma patients don't realize that the condition can cause permanent lung damage unless it is controlled through preventive medications. The site features news stories from the Reuters news agency, a list of related medical articles, clinical information, resources for patients and professionals, and a "Best of the Net," or top medical sites selected by reviewers.
The JAMA site does include ads, but only a few, and I only found them in the table of contents after a careful search. Because all information on the site is reviewed and edited with similar oversight as the magazine, there seems little cause for concern. As with the magazines, sponsors of the clinical studies are identified. The New England Journal site accepts classified advertising for health professionals.
The JAMA site also provides links to the AMA's archives (http://www.ama-assn.org/sci-pubs/pubbsrch.htm), where you can quickly scan the contents of 10 other journals covering such specialties as dermatology, family medicine, pediatrics and women's health.
The New England Journal of Medicine also allows you to search previous issues and take a quiz. If you'd like to pretend you're a doctor, you can take a clinical images quiz. The site includes photographs of conditions a doctor might encounter. You can enter a diagnosis. Then click on "Check Your Answers" to see the correct diagnosis, which is linked to additional clinical information, such as the patient's history, physical and laboratory findings, clinical treatments and the patient's response to treatment. But be forewarned, this is neither easy nor glamorous.
I must admit, the medical jargon used in these sites can be daunting. But if you know what you're looking for, you can focus on the patient pages, the condition-specific sites, press releases and the conclusion sections.
The days of house calls are clearly over, and insurance rules and restrictions often keep us from spending as much time talking to our doctors as we would like. Now you can read what the doctors read and be better informed and healthier.