While so many of the health problems we are diagnosed with are well known and have been treated for years or decades, there are also many problems that are still being researched, and for which new diagnostic tests, or treatment protocols are being developed.
As new information about any particular disease, condition or treatment is discovered or developed, it needs to be communicated to the thousands of other professionals who might be able to use that information, too. One of the communications vehicles for that information is professional medical journals. No doubt you've heard the names of some of these journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), or the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Here is some basic information about medical journals, how to figure out whether a particular journal or study is valuable, and how to get the information you need from them when you are learning more about your diagnosis or treatment.
- Medical journals are written by professionals for professionals. That means they are often very scientific, and assume a certain level of medical and scientific understanding for their audience. Since most of us patients don't have that level of knowledge, you may want to reserve the use of medical journals for research about a disease or condition that is life-threatening, rare, or has recently been in the news.
- Medical journals exist for literally every specialty and subspecialty in medicine, including areas of integrative, complementary and alternative medicine. There are thousands of medical journals, published in many languages.
- The articles included in medical journals are usually written by the researchers who have developed scientific evidence to showcase and share, or by people working with those researchers to translate the information in writing. (Researchers aren't necessarily good writers.) For example, a study may have been done on a group of people who have diabetes, to test a certain form of therapy. When the study is completed, an article will be written about the success or failure of that therapy. It will be published in a medical journal.
- Not all medical journals are created equal. Their respect and regard by the professionals who rely on their information is usually a function of the review and vetting process used to determine which articles are most objective or which ones are of broadest interest. Just as not all research is as objective as we expect it to be, nor are all medical journals.
- The most respected medical journals are those that are "peer-reviewed." That means that when an article (a report of a study) has been submitted for publication, it is first reviewed by other professionals who practice or study within the same discipline. A study done about babies with heart abnormalities will be reviewed by pediatric cardiologists to determine how objective it is, how well it is written and described, and whether it should be published.
- Access to the articles in medical journals may not be free. These journals are usually compiled by for-profit publishers, so the professionals who read them pay for subscriptions. There are some ways to get around the cost, as described on the next page.
- Medical journals can bring us very current information, which is one of the reasons they are so useful. The only caveat here is that journal information may be trumped by even more current information, or the most current may not be as relevant as the older information.
A good example is all the published studies about hormone replacement therapy. Studies done in 2002 were then debunked by study results published in 2004, which were then overshadowed by more studies reported in 2006, and so forth. You'll want to be sure you either look at all the studies, or at least the most recent ones. Sometimes the most current will also be the most accurate. But that won't always be true.
- One last word about medical journals. Just because a study and its results are published in a medical journal does not mean the study came to the right conclusions, was done objectively, or that it can be helpful to you. You will need to do your due diligence to make sure the information you find is credible and can be useful.
With all this information in mind, link to page 2 for steps to help you get the most from medical journals.