How to read a medical abstract
An abstract is a summary of a research study that allows readers to quickly learn about the important aspects of a study. In medical journals, an abstract is usually presented at the beginning of the published article. Abstracts are also a main vehicle of communication at scientific meetings. Although the intended audiences for most abstracts are medical and scientific professionals, it is becoming more common for patients and their friends and family members to read abstracts while learning about cancer. Unlike most journal articles, abstracts are easier to search online and can usually be accessed free of charge.
An abstract often includes the following sections:
- Purpose or Objective, which explains why the study was done
- Methods, which describe the following:
- The type of study that was done.
- The type and stage of the study participants’ cancer.
- Other characteristics of the study participants, such as age and gender
- How much and how often the treatment was given (if a treatment was being tested)
- What outcome was measured, such as survival, tumour shrinkage or treatment side effects.
- If not a treatment study, outcome measures could include number of new cancer cases or number of patients who experienced a specific side effect from a treatment.
- Results, which summarise the data that was collected from each participant focusing on the most important findings of the study.
- Conclusions, which describe what the results mean in relation to the purpose of the study, (for example, were the objectives met) and also places them in the larger context of cancer knowledge
Medical abstracts can be found online on PubMed. PubMed is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine that includes over 18 million citations from a wide varity of science and medical journals from current back to 1948. Users may search by topic, author, or journal name. Using this database may be more challenging, as it includes articles from all health-related topics, not just cancer. It is possible, however, to limit a search to cancer topics by clicking on the “Special Queries” link on the PubMed home page.
Types of study designs found in medical abstracts.
- Epidemiologic studies examine factors that affect public health. They focus on identifying risk factors for disease, such as linking tobacco use with lung cancer. There are several subtypes of epidemiologic studies. Three common ones are case-control, cohort, and case-series studies.
- Case-control studies compare two groups of people, such as those who have cancer (the case), and those who do not (the control). Researchers look for lifestyle or genetic differences between the two groups that may explain why one group has cancer and the other does not. These studies are done retrospectively, meaning the event they are studying has already happened.
- Cohort studies are prospective (the event has not yet happened). These studies monitor a group of people for a long time and track any new cases of cancer. This approach can be used to identify cancer risk factors.
- Case-series studies are compilations of detailed descriptions of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment history. These individual patient descriptions are called case reports. If many patients are given a similar treatment, each case report may be combined to form a case series. Outcomes from case-series studies are descriptions of patients’ experiences within a specific population and should not be used to determine treatment options. Case-series studies can describe both case-control and cohort studies.
- A clinical trial is a medical or health-related research study in people that can either test the safety or effectiveness of a new treatment or prevention method, or be observational as with many of the epidemiologic studies.
- A meta-analysis combines the results of several studies on the same topic. By combining studies, a meta-analysis has the ability to find trends that may not be apparent in smaller studies. However, if the individual studies are poorly done, the results of a meta-analysis may not be useful.
Evaluating the information
Evaluating the information you find in an abstract can be difficult. The following tips may help:
- Find out where the study was published and if the journal uses a peer-review process when reviewing publication submissions, meaning that other researchers not affiliated with the study have reviewed the design and methods, and agreed that the results and conclusions are important enough to be published.
- Look at the length of the study and the number of people involved. A study is more applicable and believable if the same results occur in many people over a long time.
- Try to determine if this study supports or contradicts the research that is already available. New results are exciting, but other researchers must validate the results before the medical community accepts them as fact.
- Watch out for conclusions that overstate the results. Each study is a small piece of the research puzzle, and medical practice rarely changes because of the results of one study.
- Do not stop or change medication based on results you see in an abstract. Always talk with your doctor about the information you find in an abstract.
Source: ASCO www.asco.org