Have you ever been to the doctor and been confronted with a treatment you knew nothing about and an explanation that left you just as confused? How do you decide which treatment is best for you? What are a treatment’s harms, benefits and objectives? If you have ever struggled with any of these questions, please consider visiting the Cochrane Collaboration’s Library (www.thecochranelibrary.org).

The Cochrane Collaboration is a not-for-profit international organization presently consisting of approximately 28,000 dedicated contributors worldwide and it is proud to be celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. Its main objective is to help healthcare providers, policy-makers, patients and their advocates and caregivers make well-informed healthcare decisions by producing, maintaining and promoting systematic reviews which are widely considered to be the gold standard in healthcare treatment and intervention related information.

A systematic review can relate to a treatment, prevention or type of care. It begins by addressing a clearly formulated question (such as, “Are gastro-oesophageal reflux treatments effective for relieving prolonged non-specific cough in children?”). What makes a Cochrane review unique from other reviews? Each Cochrane review is preceded by a published protocol which clearly outlines the question to be addressed and gives details regarding the review authors’ plans to access and rigorously assess the many trials and studies available worldwide on that topic for quality and possible bias. Before publication, protocols are reviewed by other researchers, healthcare professionals and consumers (patients, advocates and caregivers) who are familiar with the treatment or intervention in question but not involved with the writing of the actual review. The inclusion of consumer reviewers ensures that appropriate patient-related concerns regarding treatment harms and benefits are addressed and that the actual research question is relevant.

A systematic review is the detailed summary of these results and attempts to provide the answer to the initial question. Is the treatment helpful, harmful, or are the results inconclusive indicating that more high quality research is necessary? Cochrane systematic reviews take the guess-work out of making well informed decisions about healthcare by striving to provide the most reliable and relevant source of evidence on which to base these decisions.

The Cochrane Library includes the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews which is a collection of over 5,400 health treatment reviews which are published on the Internet and cover hundreds of medical conditions, including many gastrointestinal, liver and gallbladder conditions.

Full reviews can be quite lengthy and technical for a layperson. To alleviate this problem, the Cochrane Collaboration has recently launched a free, easy to navigate website, Cochrane Summaries (http://summaries.cochrane.org) which highlights plain language summaries and also has access to abstracts. An abstract is a shortened version of a review which still contains a certain amount of medical terminology and technical information on how the review was conducted. A plain language summary, on the other hand, is a condensed version of a review written in easily comprehensible language. It includes the findings on benefits and harms of the treatment in question as well as any limitations of the review and studies it includes. To make things even easier for the user, all plain language summaries and abstracts on this site have a built in glossary that automatically highlights and defines technical terms and medical jargon as you pass your cursor over the word.

The Cochrane Summaries site couldn’t be easier to use. If you know what treatment you are looking for, simply enter it in the search window along with your condition (such as, “Gastro-oesophageal reflux treatments for cough in children” or “Cisapide for gastro-oesophageal reflux in children”). To locate other treatment options for your condition, simply enter the term in the search window and the summary titles available appear. Just click on the one that interests you. The Cochrane Library is continually evolving and there are currently 2,300 more healthcare topics underway but if you are unable to locate a treatment or a condition, by all means contact the Cochrane Collaboration at www.cochrane.org with your feedback or recommendations.

Abstracts and plain language summaries are available to everyone for free in English. Most are also available in French, with a growing number in Croatian, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese and Spanish. Simply click on the appropriate tab at http://summaries.cochrane.org for translations.

Many of us now use the Internet as our primary source of health-related information. There are, indeed, some excellent sites but unfortunately, there are also some very unreliable ones. Cochrane systematic reviews can be trusted to provide the evidence-based information necessary to make the best treatment option choices for yourself and your loved ones, thereby, achieving the best possible condition outcome. This is why it is wise to go to The Cochrane Library before you Google. So, the next time you are presented with a treatment option you know nothing about or simply want to see if there are other treatment options you can discuss with your gastroenterologist, remember to “Cochrane” instead of Google. It is said that knowledge is power and that is never truer than when talking about health care.

The Cochrane Collaboration is always interested in the opinions and involvement of consumers (patients/caregivers). If you are interested in becoming involved, please contact the Cochrane Consumer Network at http://consumers.cochrane.org for details regarding all the ways that consumers can contribute. Being involved with the Cochrane Collaboration is a very satisfying way of contributing to potential improvements in the quality of health care.

The information for this article is adapted from links found at http://summaries.cochrane.org, www.cochrane.org, www.thecochranelibrary.org, http://consumers.cochrane.org, http://anniversary.cochrane.org and http://summaries.cochrane.org/fr.

By: Marilyn Walsh and Alfretta Vanderheyden (Volunteer consumer reviewers for the Cochrane Upper Gastrointestinal and Pancreatic Diseases Group).

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