Reading Journal Article Abstracts Isn’t As Bad As I Thought

Physicians mainly read the abstract of a journal article (JAMA 1999;281:1129). I must admit I am guilty of this also. Furthermore, I would bet that the most often read section of the entire article is the conclusions of the abstract. We are such a soundbite society.

Quick facts

I had always thought the literature showed how bad abstracts were…that they were often misleading compared to the body of the article. But I was wrong. A recent study  published in BMJ EBM found that 53.3% are abstracts had a discrepancy compared to information in the body of the article. That sounds bad doesn’t it? But only 1 of them was clinically significant. Thus most of the discrepancies were not important enough to potentially cause patient harm or alter a clinical decision.

This is good news as effectively practicing EBM requires information at the point of care. Doctors don’t have time to read an entire article at the point of care for every question they have but they do have time to read an abstract. It’s good to know that structured abstracts (at least from the major journals that were reviewed in this study) can be relied upon for information. I especially like reading abstracts in evidence based journals like BMJ EBM or ACP Journal Club as even their titles give the clinical information you need.

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