A consumer’s guide to research on substance use disorders (part 1)

Reading about addiction and recovery can be overwhelming and confusing. Media reports and experts often make strongly worded statements that are contradicted by statements from other media sources and experts. Other times, they seem to negate or minimize the lived experience of people with drug or alcohol problems and their families.

For example, it’s very common for press releases, media reports and, occasionally, researchers to make statements about a study demonstrating the effectiveness of a particular intervention. Other times, we hear people say something like, “science shows that [insert intervention] works.”

However, when we look closely at the study, we may find that the outcomes don’t fit our idea of “effectiveness” or “works.” Further, the conditions and subjects don’t resemble the real world.

This isn’t confusing just for lay people, it’s confusing for professionals and policy makers too. And, to make matters worse, most of us are pretty reluctant to question statements presented as science or evidence-based.

For this reason, I’ve been working on a guide that will hopefully allow anyone to review a study and evaluate its relevance to their goals. This way you can make an informed evaluation rather than having to rely on the reporting of others, who may see things through their own bias or interests. The guide is based on the following questions.

  1. What is the treatment or intervention being studied?
  2. Who were the subjects?
  3. How long was the study?
  4. What outcomes did the study measure? (How did they define success?)
  5. What were the study methods?
  6. What were the actual findings and does the authors’ discussion accurately represent the findings?
  7. Were there any conflicts of interest (real or potential)?
  8. What questions does the study not answer?

My next 8 posts will walk through these questions.

11 thoughts on “A consumer’s guide to research on substance use disorders (part 1)

  1. Thanks for this – look forward to your drilling down into these very sensible questions.

    I do think that in addiction treatment research there is often a conflict between public health goals and individual goals. When you ask individuals what they want from treatment, you get a range of responses like stopping using drugs, better quality of life and attaining simple goals (a family, a job, happiness). Public health goals are around reducing mortality and morbidity and may overlap to some extent with individual goals, but may also be quite different.

    As you’ve said in a previous blog, focussing on opioid treatment misses the fact that many individuals are cross-addicted and it’s surprising how challenging it can be to find from research, just what impact drugs other than opioids are being used and their impact.

  2. This will be extremely useful, informative and thought provoking (I’m guessing) so I can’t wait to read the series…

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