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Understanding Medical Articles:

Do medical articles scare you?

Have you ever wanted to read some of those medical reports or scientific articles, like they have in "doctor magazines," medical journals, and scientific magazines? Are you a little afraid that you'll get in over your head? It's time to give it a try! Here is some advice for you:

Find the article's sections

Brain Injury, the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, the American Journal of Rehabilitation, and NeuroRehabilitation are examples of medical journals that have a lot of articles on brain injury. Articles in magazines like these usually are divided into sections with titles like:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results/Findings
  • Discussion/Conclusion
  • References

Your job will be easier if you know what you'll find in each section, and how to go about reading each section. Let's go through them now:

The Abstract section

You'll find this at the very beginning of the article. It is a short review of the whole article. That means it could be very useful to you.

The first thing you should do is go to the end of the Abstract. You'll find a list of "Key Words." These describe the main topics of the article. If none of these words is about something you are interested in, you probably don't need to read any more of the article. If you are interested and plan to keep reading, make sure you understand all of these key words before you go on. Look them up in a dictionary or maybe even a medical dictionary, before you do anything else.

Now, go back to the beginning of the Abstract. Read it, and ask yourself these questions:

  • what was studied?
  • who were the research subjects?
  • how and where was the research done?
  • what did the researchers find?

Does what the researchers studied still seem interesting to you? Does it seem relevant? Do the people who participated in the research project seem to be similar to you? Or, is their situation similar to yours? If the answer is "yes," keep working your way through the rest of the article. If the answer is "no," you can probably stop reading, and look for a different article.

The Introduction section

This section is also sometimes called the "Background" or "Literature Review." It is one of the best parts of the article. Journals require authors to review every-thing there is to know on their subject before they do their research. Then, they put this information in the Introduction to their article, which describes:

  • why you should care about what they're studying
  • who their research is important to
  • what is already known on the topic what new information they hope their research and article will add

When authors write the Introduction, they'll use citations. These could look like:

  • a small raised number: "Smith1"
  • a number in parentheses at the end of a sentence: "Smith. (1)"
  • a name and a date in parentheses at the end of a sentence: (Smith 1996)"

Each of these citations is just a different way of referring to another person's published research article. At the end of each medical article you read there will be a References list. In this list, each of the citations will match up with a full description of the article it came from. If something you read in the Introduction is especially interesting, you can find out who wrote it and where it was published. Then, you could find that article and read it, too.

The Methods section

The Methods section usually is next. It should tell you:

  • who participated in the research, in much more detail than the Abstract
  • how they were chosen
  • the design of the research: How was it done? Did it involve interviews? Did the researcher review medical records? Did he or she test a new drug or treatment? - and so on.
  • how the results were examined or analyzed. What kind of math or statistics were used?

The Methods section can be pretty difficult to understand. Here's some advice: Read the Methods section just closely enough to figure out if the people who participated in the study were similar enough to you to matter. Once you've figured that out, go back and see what the Abstract had to say about the methods used. That should be enough information!

The Results section

The Results section tells you just what the authors found. There may be tables and graphs. Numbers and statistics will be used. This can be a pretty complicated section, too. Luckily, you can usually count on the authors to make some sense of their research for you. This they do in the next section, called the Discussion.

The Discussion section

This section is often the most useful part of the article. It interprets what the researcher's findings mean and how they're relevant. The authors should also describe the limitations of their research. When you find the paragraph that talks about limitations, read it carefully. Here is where you will learn what you can and can't assume from the research. You'll find out what the research failed to find, too! You'll read about things that would have made the research better or even more useful. It is up to you to decide if any of these limitations make the research usefull to you in your own situation. However, keep in mind: the article would not have been published if the editors believed the research was totally worthless.

How to find more Info:

Medical articles usually can be found in medical school libraries. If you do not live near a medical school, you still may be able to get an article you are interested in. Many university libraries and public libraries will help you find an article. They'll contact a distant library that does have the journal. They'll ask them to send a photo-copy, and they'll let you know when it arrives. However, before they can help you, the library will ask you for:

  • the exact title of the article, and the exact title of the journal or magazine it is in;
  • the names of the authors, or at least the last name, and first initials of the first author; the date the journal was published. This could be day, month and year, or it could be volume number, issue number, and the year. Regardless of how the journal records its date of publication, be sure you get ALL of the information that is possible;
  • the page numbers of the article.

The bottom line: do not be afraid to ask librarians to help you. If they do not have what you're looking for, they will point you in the right direction. Don't be shy. That's what people in libraries do!