Many of us assume that we get access to some of the best healthcare in the world, but how do we ensure it stays that way? Behold, the practice of peer review.
In today’s world, clinical peer review is mostly done in hospitals, but may also take place in other settings such as surgical centres or larger group medical practices. In simple terms, the end goal of peer review is to improve the quality and safety of care provided by medical practitioners in not just Australia, but the world. If we think of peer review as quality control for the healthcare industry, how does it all work?
How Peer Review Works In Healthcare
If the world of medicine is largely science based, then understandably, a great deal of research is required in order to get the processes right. Of course, regulations need to be in place to ensure that the findings are safe to be applied in terms of healthcare.
Scientific researchers aim to improve general medical knowledge and find better ways to treat disease. By publishing their study findings in medical journals, they enable other scientists – or their “peers” – to share their developments, test the results, take the investigation further, and ultimately review each other’s findings.
Not only is this process essential for sharing knowledge and triple checking the accuracy of that knowledge, but it’s also paramount in identifying flawed medical research. Examples of such flaws can include:
- Falsified findings and hoax results that do not have a proven scientific basis.
- Potentially dangerous conclusions, recommendations, and findings that could harm people.
- Plagiarised work, meaning that an author has taken ideas or results from other researchers.
Not only is peer review a must for ensuring that the best possible medical treatment is advised, tried and tested, but it can also guide decisions about grants for medical research funding.
For readers who have completed higher education via university, the concept of peer review in the medical world is similar to the source material you may have had to track down for your degree. Students can’t submit assignments using information sourced on Wikipedia and instead have to find published journals, books, articles that have been “peer reviewed”, or authenticated.
For medical journals, the process and the end goal is somewhat similar. Peer review means asking experts from the same field as the authors to help editors decide whether to publish or reject a manuscript by providing an educated critique of the work. While there is no industry standard to dictate the details of a peer review process, most major medical journals follow guidelines sourced from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is another association that offers ethical guidelines for medical peer reviewers. The role of a peer reviewer is summarised in the code of the above entities as following:
“The editor is looking to them for subject knowledge, good judgment, and an honest and fair assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the work and the manuscript.”
The reviewer will evaluate the paper, not the author. To encourage this, most peer reviews are conducted “blindly”, meaning that the reviewer has no knowledge of the author, or any of their personal or employment history in order to ensure an unbiased review is issued.
A peer review generally addresses three common areas:
Quality – How well did the researchers conduct their study, and how reliable are its conclusions? These points test the credibility and accuracy of the science under evaluation.
Relevance – Is the paper of interest to readers of this journal and appropriate to this field of work?
Importance – What clinical impact could the research have? Do the findings add a new element to existing knowledge or practice?
Although peer review can help a publication retain the integrity and publish content that advances the field of science, it’s still not exactly a perfect system. The number of journals worldwide is increasing, which means that finding an equivalent number of experienced reviewers can be difficult. Peer reviewers also rarely receive financial compensation, even though the process can be time-consuming and stressful.
Despite these potential flaws, medical journals use peer review as a means to make sure that the material is accurate. After all, the editor can always reject reviews that they feel show a form of bias.
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