How can anecdotal information help medical research?

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June 30, 2020

The CDC has guidelines to
reduce the spread of COVID-19. Researchers are looking for the best ways to prevent and treat this disease. Many ideas have surfaced in the news and on social media. People are asking, “What really works?” Some of the answers may start with anecdotal information.

What does anecdotal mean?

Anecdotal [an-ik-doh-til] means that what we know is based on personal stories or experiences.

Product star ratings are an example of anecdotal information. People can rate a product based on how well the product worked for them. Many people may have a good experience with a product. But there are usually some people who have a bad experience with the same product. You might have more confidence in something with a high star rating from thousands of verified users.

We often hear anecdotal information about health issues. Family and friends might share stories about what happened to them. Doctors report what seems to help their patients. You may have your own story about a medicine or behavior that helped you.

When taken one-by-one, these stories are “anecdotal”. What works for one person may not work for someone else.

When is anecdotal information used in medical research?

Researchers may look for patterns of illness in communities to figure out what’s causing a disease. Stories from doctors and patients may give clues about possible new treatments.

What are some pitfalls of using anecdotal information?

Here are a few ways that anecdotal data can give people the wrong idea.

  1. Sometimes a result may be due to coincidences. For example, a patient may get better after taking one of the drugs used to treat COVID-19. That patient may have been on the road to recovery anyway. Without a way to compare treatments, it’s hard to know what really works.

  2. How people live, take care of themselves, and use health care can be linked. For example, people who take daily vitamins may also make other healthy lifestyle choices. They may eat a healthy diet, take medicine as prescribed and get regular exercise. In this case, it might be hard to know which actions are really making a difference.

  3. Sometimes simply believing you are doing something that is good for you can help you feel better. This is known as the placebo effect.

  4. We often give more attention to successes than failures. For example, 1000 people might say a treatment helped them. You might assume that the treatment is very effective. What if 10,000 people got that treatment? Would you hold the same assumption if the treatment was effective for only 1000 people?

How do we get beyond anecdotal evidence?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, anecdotal data helped doctors and researchers come up with possible ways to prevent and treat the disease. Many research studies were developed from those early observations.

These observations must be tested through more careful study. Clinical trials and other types of studies let researchers “compare apples to apples.” High quality research can move us beyond anecdotal information.

Visit WePartner4Research to learn more about clinical trials. There you will find out why research volunteers are so important for improving health, including ending the coronavirus pandemic.

The official name of the virus that started a worldwide outbreak in late 2019 is “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2.”  The abbreviation is SARS-CoV-2. When the virus infects someone, the diagnosis is called “Coronavirus Disease 2019.” The abbreviation is COVID-19. In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease.

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