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With patients in mind, looking to improve medical research

About three weeks ago I was pacing the subterranean waiting room of a children's hospital far from home. Unlike some past experiences, this time I wasn't gathering information for a story. Instead, my 17-year-old daughter was undergoing lengthy upper and lower jaw surgery to correct a developmental defect that had progressively impeded her ability to chew or smile normally. Tossed from the role of a reporter into that of a patient's family member, I reflected on exactly how much trust is required to watch your child be wheeled away from you through the operating room doors. I also thought about how lucky our family was that doctors knew, with the wisdom born of years of research and clinical experience, how best to fix her problem and correct her bite.

A few weeks before our family headed off to visit the out-of-state surgeon whom my daughter laughingly called "The Wonderful Wizard of Jaws," I published a story in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine that took a somber look at medical research (more specifically, the reproducibility of studies) and explored ways of making the outcomes of studies more accurate. As part of my article, I interviewed John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who is well-known for his role in pointing out forces at play that might lead to the publication of faulty studies and even the adoption of clinically useless (or even harmful) practices. He's one of a growing number of people calling for significant changes in how science is conducted, and in my article he connected the issue to families like mine:

The overall aim is to issue a course correction to the U.S. medical research behemoth by bringing back into focus its core mission: How to benefit those who need it most.

“I think that, somewhere along the line, we began to miss the big picture,” muses Ioannidis. “What have we been rewarding in science? Quantity of publications? Findings that appear statistically significant? We should be rewarding quality research that will make an impact on real people’s lives — both those who are sick and those who wish to remain healthy.”

There's no question that my daughter's successful surgery will have a big, and lasting, impact on her life. I'm so grateful that the surgeon and the many other medical professionals in the operating room took such care to achieve a good outcome. My article details how national research organizations, the publishers of scientific journals and people like Ioannidis are launching new efforts to ensure that patients across the nation and around the world will benefit from clinical and scientific decisions based on a firm foundation of reproducible, reliable research -- no wizardry required.

Previously: Strive, thrive and take five: Stanford Medicine magazine on the science of well-being, On communicating science and uncertainty: A podcast with John Ioannidis and Clinical research's flaws highlighted by Stanford's John Ioannidis
Illustration by Mark Smith

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