Intended for healthcare professionals


Do patients need to read research?

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 12 June 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:1307
  1. Richard Smith (, editor1
  1. 1 BMJ, London WC1H 9JR


    Most patients wouldn't dream of reading medical research. They probably imagine it to be arcane, mystical material full of numbers, formulas, and Greek symbols—the kind of stuff that Merlin used to cast his spells. They aren't far wrong, but it is possible to get to grips with medical research without being as clever as Wittgenstein. If it's any comfort, most doctors don't read or understand medical research either—but they can be trained to do so without too much effort. Patients and journalists can also be trained—and many are now much more competent at appraising research than the average doctor.

    The results of research

    The main reason for reading medical research is that it underpins all of medicine. The drugs that doctors use are the result of research, but what we understand about the course of a disease and how to diagnose and treat it also comes increasingly from research.

    I belong to a generation who had our tonsils removed for recurrent snotty noses. The treatment was useless. Thirty years ago patients who had heart attacks were kept in bed for days. The treatment killed them. When my first son …

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