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The Cochrane Library can help you determine which treatments really work

Ever found yourself struggling to determine which health treatments are worth trusting? You're not alone. Consumers today may have access to a broader range of healthcare options than ever before, but this growing resource pool is a mixed blessing. As we've discussed recently, the sheer number of treatments available to lay people, in conjunction with conflicting reports about their effectiveness, can pose obstacles to making sense of the science around health and medicine. This confusion can have serious consequences — it's tough to make good choices when you can't tell which treatments work.

Fortunately, you can get a clear and reliable idea of the efficacy of many healthcare techniques with the help of the Cochrane Library, a massive collection of research papers that summarize the existing scientific knowledge on a vast range of common health interventions.

Some examples include reviews of:

  • vitamin C as a cure for the common cold

  • acupuncture as a treatment for neck pain

  • mobile apps designed to help with smoking cessation

  • psychosocial treatments (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) for self-harm, such as cutting

  • melatonin as a treatment for jet lag

The Library is operated by the Cochrane Collaboration, a decentralized medical think tank comprised of renowned academics and medical professionals from around the world. It contains research on a variety of different subjects, including the reliability of diagnostic tests, prognoses for people with existing health issues, and the effectiveness of non-medical health interventions (such as cash transfers for victims of humanitarian disasters). However, its most immediately valuable resource is its collection of systematic reviews that examine specific treatments, or interventions. As the Library's website puts it, systematic reviews are "attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making."

As a result, these reviews are some of the most detailed and comprehensive examinations of medical treatment effectiveness available to the public. Individual medical studies — especially those with small sample sizes, no double-blind randomized structure, or other design shortcomings — can be extremely unreliable. But Cochrane's reviews are specifically designed to focus on the highest-quality studies available, and the fact that they cover many studies on any given subject dramatically increases the reliability of their findings. Better yet, each one includes a plain-language summary of its findings, so it's easy to make sense of the technical details.

Medical science evolves rapidly in a variety of different fields, and it's always best to consider your options with a healthy dose of skepticism. The Cochrane Library's systematic reviews are no exception to this rule, but as far as carefully vetted science goes, healthcare consumers would be hard-pressed to find more reliable information than they offer.

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