January 2009

The Truth about Your Health

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: Loren Goldfarb

Lose weight, live longer, look younger. Eat this. Don’t eat that. Pop a pill. Get tested… Each day, we are bombarded with health messages from newspapers, magazines, television commercials, Web sites, billboards and even bus signs. Yet, with all this information at our disposal, the proliferation of confusing and often conflicting advice is dizzying, if not downright dangerous. So who are we to trust?

According to health journalist, Robert J. Davis, author of The Healthy Skeptic, it’s time to do some serious sleuthing. In recent interviews with CH2 and Amazon.com, the author talked about his chosen career and made his case for a dose of healthy skepticism:

CH2: Your mom is a writer and your dad was a doctor. So how did your parents influence your career choice?
Davis: My mother definitely encouraged my career choice by encouraging me to write from the time I was very little. When I was 10 years old, I had a story published in Jack and Jill magazine. For whatever reason, I inherited my father’s interest in health issues. So I was able to combine my interest in writing with medical information.

CH2: What compelled you to write The Healthy Skeptic?
Davis: It was an outgrowth of my work over the last 20 years, but specifically a column I wrote in the Wall Street Journal called “Aches and Claims.” There were so many things that I wanted to write about, but I only had 500 words or less. I wanted to be able to expound on some of those things, and I thought the book was a great way to do that.

CH2: So what is a healthy skeptic?
Davis: Someone who takes time to critically evaluate all health advice, regardless of whether it comes from the media, a drug company, a non-profit health group, a government agency, or anyone else.

CH2: Why is it important to be skeptical about health information?
Davis: Doing the right things can make a big difference. But if we make the wrong choices, we may very well have something to lose. We can waste money and time or there may be side effects. The point is that there is a lot at stake here. We can have longer, healthier lives if we follow good advice. But we can have negative consequences if we follow bad advice.

CH2: You identify various “health promoters” who are peddling advice that’s less than fully truthful. It’s clear why entities selling products might try to spin us, but what about those who don’t have a financial incentive?
Davis: In some cases, non-profit groups are financially beholden to commercial interests, whose agendas influence the groups’ advice; in other cases, health promoters may mislead us because of a desire for attention, or a zealous belief in the correctness their own ideas (despite a lack of solid evidence), or the notion that the public is too stupid to understand scientific complexity and so advice has to be oversimplified.

CH2: You focus a great deal on your own field—the news media. How and why do they mislead us about our health?
Davis: The main problem is the difference between science and journalism. Science involves small, incremental steps that gradually get us closer to the truth. Journalism, in contrast, is largely about what is new, exciting, and attention-grabbing. When journalists interpret health research though that prism, as is often the case, we can get a distorted sense of reality.

Amazon.com: If a news article or TV ad touts the efficacy of a new drug based on “clinical trials” or “clinical testing,” is this information reliable?
Davis: To be approved and marketed, prescription drugs must be subjected to rigorous clinical testing in humans. However, sometimes we see media reports hyping early-stage research on a drug—it killed cancer cells in a test-tube, for example, or reversed diabetes in rodents—and we’re led to believe that a cure is around the corner. In fact, preliminary findings such as these frequently don’t pan out upon further investigation. That’s why when we hear that “research shows” something, it’s important to know what kind of research we’re talking about: Is it an early-stage experiment testing only safety, for example, or a long-term randomized trial involving thousands of people? There’s a big difference.
The term “clinically proven” is often used misleadingly to promote herbal remedies and other dietary supplements. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements don’t have to undergo rigorous testing before they can be sold and marketed. Supplement manufacturers may conduct small, short-term, poorly designed experiments and point to them as “proof” that their products are safe and effective. And in some cases, the “clinical trials” cited by supplement makers involve a product that’s entirely different from the one being marketed.

CH2: What is the main message you hope people will take away from your book?
Davis: Two things. Number one, think skeptically and think critically before you swallow claims that are being made. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Ask questions, consider the source and scrutinize the science. And number two, not to feel so overwhelmed. If you have a plan of attack and know where to look for information, it’s not as daunting as it might seem. One thing that I want to guard against is people becoming cynics, where they say “I’m not going to pay attention to anything.” That’s just as bad as believing everything, because there is valuable information. What I do is walk people through how to ask the right questions and where to go to check things out. The trustworthy sources of information I provide at the end of each chapter can be a good start.

Amazon.com: Is it possible to be a healthy skeptic without turning into neurotic worry wart?
Davis: Absolutely. In fact, being a healthy skeptic is the antidote to being worry wart. Every day, we’re warned about something—foods, beverages, pesticides, plastics, cell phones, hair dye, Teflon pans and on and on—that allegedly threatens our health and our lives. Trying to heed all or even most of these warnings can be overwhelming. There is, after all, only so much that we can worry about. A healthy skeptic learns to look at each alleged threat in context, asking, “How solid is the evidence?” and “How big is the risk compared to other, well-established risks (such as smoking)?” As a result, we’re able to prioritize, focusing mainly on those measures that are most likely to have the biggest impact.

CH2: Are you health conscious?
Davis: Yes, I exercise regularly and am careful about what I eat. But I try to keep things in perspective, remembering that healthy living doesn’t guarantee we’ll be protected from illness and that the pursuit of health, if followed indiscriminately or taken too far, can lead to harm.

The Healthy Skeptic is available locally at Barnes and Noble and Island Bookseller. Order online at Amazon.com or Everwell.com.

About Robert Davis
Robert J. Davis is an award-winning health journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, PBS and WebMD and in the Wall Street Journal. He is currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches at Emory University’s Rolins School of Public Health. In addition, he is founder, president and editor-in-chief of Everwell, a company which provides unbiased video content to help consumers make informed choices about their health and work more effectively with their physicians.

Davis holds a PhD in health policy from Brandies University, where he was a Pew Foundation Fellow. He also earned a master’s degree in public health from Emory University and an undergraduate degree in politics from Princeton University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He is the son of long-time Hilton Head Island resident, Scottie Davis, and is a frequent visitor here.

Meet the author: On Friday, February 6th, at 1 p.m., Robert Davis will conduct a class for the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of South Carolina Beaufort. You must be an OSHER member to attend. For information, call (843) 208-8247.

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