‘Stay informed. Read less. Do more.’ Tools to evaluate research

The COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team offers the daily truth to help policymakers, agencies of government, researchers, students and laypersons parse through data


It was just about a year ago that I discussed the thoughts of Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization about information, disinformation and how we must subscribe to the facts. As we have seen, SARS-CoV-2 has caused the development of facts, pseudo-science, rumor, conjecture and political finger-pointing. Also, as with any new virus or outbreak, the proliferation of clinical trials, studies and papers are coming forward almost daily. As we all don’t have time to read everything and sort the wheat from the chaff, a volunteer organization called the COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team has been doing it for us.

The amount of COVID-19 research out there is staggering. In the first five months of 2020, more than 10,000 papers were published regarding COVID-19. This is more than twice the number of publications on influenza or malaria for the entire year of 2019. Many of these articles could be described as researchers offering their studies, desperate to share the findings in the hopes of helping others. However, many articles covering the same topic and many of poor quality, highlighted the need for assistance in parsing through data, especially during the time of crisis to develop situational awareness. In other words, there is lot to sift through to distinguish the signal from the noise.

Literature Surveillance Team Co-founder, Will Smith, MD, FAEMS, sets the scene; “Early on in the pandemic, working with some medical students from the University of Washington, the University of Arizona and a few other places, they got pulled off their clinical rotations and asked what they could do to help, and so just looking at all the initial literature that was coming out, they started looking through the literature with myself as an advisor and started looking at the level of evidence and put together the COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team (LST) and they are still producing products five days a week.”

In the first five months of 2020, more than 10,000 papers were published regarding COVID-19.
In the first five months of 2020, more than 10,000 papers were published regarding COVID-19. (Photo/Getty Images)

With the need to share information quickly to combat COVID-19, many leading medical journals suspended their peer review processes, meaning more people had access to more information more rapidly, but that also created a lot of content with minimal pre-publication critique. The COVID-19 LST cut through the noise to get doctors and healthcare workers on the front lines the scientifically-sound information they need to save lives.

The University of Washington School of Medicine third-year medical student and LST Co-founder, Jasmine Rah, acts as CEO and heads the 50-plus strong group of volunteer physicians, medical students and other PhDs. The LST’s concept is to enable providers to “Stay informed. Read less. Do more.” To achieve this, Rah noted that the team reviews selected papers “based on their novelty, relevance and potential to change public health policy or management.” The process requires them to read the study and then grade its level of evidence using the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine: Levels of Evidence – a 1 through 5 grade assessment – and provide a summary using the bottom line up front method. The product of the analysis is then published online at www.covid19lst.org, via their Twitter site @COVID19LST and even via a weekly podcast, presented by Smith and Rah, available on both Apple and Google podcasts as well as Spotify.

Answering the burning questions about COVID-19

The team’s recent analysis of academic output has assessed everything from the effectiveness of the canine ability to detect COVID-19, through “Trends in U.S. alcohol consumption frequency during the first wave of the SARS-COV-2 Pandemic,” conducted by Columbia University, New York, and Monash University in Australia, to the South African “Cabin Crew Health and Fitness to Fly: Opportunities for re-evaluation amid COVID-19.” To answer the burning question, a trained sniffer dog in the trial could detect Covid-19 in human sweat 80-100% of the time in a controlled environment, but doubt was expressed whether the real world and its competing odors would impact this high level of confidence.

The COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team, initially created to inform clinical decision-making, has now grown to become a guide to policymakers, various agencies of government, researchers, students and laypersons. Part of that growth has recently seen the addition of an indexing system and also becoming a 501c3, not-for-profit organization to take donations as well as find patrons to financially support the ongoing operation. This move allows the LST to continue to conduct the very important role of screening and summarizing evidence in an unbiased manner.

Looking to a future beyond COVID-19, following the COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team’s mission to empower truth-seekers with tools to evaluate science, the team plans to continue their process for other topics with clinical significance in the future.

Read more: Data points to evaluate at your agency as we move into a new phase of COVID-19 response

EMS One-Stop With Rob Lawrence

In this edition of EMS One-Stop, our host, Rob Lawrence, is joined by guests Dr. Will Smith and Medical Student Jasmine Rah. Dr. Smith and Rah are the founders of the COVID-19 Literature Surveillance Team (LST) which is reading, grading, decoding and explaining the majority published COVID-19 research that has been published in the last 12 months.

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