The University is delivering a free online course, known as a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC, to help people navigate the minefield of material available.
Health research is big business with over one million papers published annually on health-related topics.
Course leader Fiona Morgan, who lectures in research methods in the University’s School of Healthcare Sciences, said vested interests were using “sneakier” methods to get their sometimes misleading health messages across.
“A big thing you need to look for, the really big thing, is whether the research was sponsored.
“If it was sponsored, who sponsored it, what kind of conflicts of interest do people have?
“It’s actually getting sneakier and one of the things that we show you is that quite often what you see is funded in a way you might not expect by a group which has a vested interest in you believing that piece of evidence.”
Case studies in The Informed Health Consumer: Making Sense of Evidence course consist of the MMR vaccine; the use of drugs in pregnancy and thalidomide; smoking and lung cancer; and the impact of dehydration on our ability to function.
The course will be useful for people who want to find out more about a medical condition or those considering studying a health-related subject at university. It will also interest those who want to improve their knowledge of a health-related issue.
Fiona said: “We put the course together because every day we’re being bombarded with news about how something is good for you, not so good for you, causes cancer…
“It was really to help people understand why not all evidence is good evidence and why you need to be selective.
“What tends to happen is people get their ideas about health research from the media, and generally what happens is that it gets distorted because very often the messages are a bit more nuanced than a short press release might give you.”
The course is a cross-School collaboration with an educator team that also features Dr Andy Williams, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies; Dr Mark Kelson, School of Medicine; and Keren Williamson, School of Healthcare Sciences.
Registration is now open for the four-week course, run through FutureLearn. It starts on 7 September but people can sign up any time in the four-week period.
The Informed Health Consumer: Making Sense of Evidence course is available here.