A consumer’s guide to research on substance use disorders (part 6)

In previous posts, I explained the challenges of making sense of research and introduced 8 questions that will help readers evaluate evidence and relevance to their work, goals, and lives. Today is question #5.

5) What were the study methods?

There are many approaches used in SUD research and each approach offers advantages and disadvantages in different situations. Methods include experimental (including randomized control trials), qualitative, case studies, meta-analysis, and observational.

It’s often said that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard for research. It’s important to keep a few things in mind about them. First, they lend themselves to studying easily quantifiable outcomes, which means they tend to focus on relatively narrow outcomes in relatively narrow contexts. Second, they tend to be very expensive, which means that they often only get done with financial backing from large institutions (public or private). Third, in some cases their use may be limited by ethical problems related to using placebos or blinded treatments. Finally, they tend to eclipse experiential and local knowledge. 

It’s also important to look at other factors, for example:

  • the number of subjects in the study;
  • whether outcome numbers were based on all subjects or just those retained in the study;
  • what measures/data were (e.g. self-report or urine drug screens).

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