If a study told you using a parachute to jump from an airplane was overrated, would you listen?

airplane drink
A new study may have you considering a leap from an airplane with only an empty backpack. Read the limitations section before you try it, though. (NLN/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Would you jump out of an airplane with only an empty backpack? A new study finds it just as safe as jumping with a parachute.

Before you launch yourself blissfully through the air from 20,000 feet, however, you should really read the study.

For one thing, it’s hilarious.

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With a particularly nerdy brand of humor—they never specified whether the airplane left the ground, after all!—it's meant more for its broader point than rigorous scholarship. For instance, a recently published study examined how long it took six researchers to pass a Lego through their respective digestive tracts. Axios pointed out another satirical study this week about the lack of efficacy of mothers kissing boo-boos.

More importantly, the study points out more broadly the limitations of studies when it comes to offering important information to the people who could most benefit.

A while ago, Robert Yeh, M.D., director of the Richard and Susan Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, heard the saying that medical researchers could never evaluate the efficacy of parachutes for people jumping out of airplanes. It’s typically meant as a metaphorical explanation for why some of the treatments doctors provide lack an evidentiary basis, but Yeh noted it had a fatal flaw.

“I thought to myself, ‘You know, you could do that clinical trial—it’s just that the airplanes would have to be on the ground,’” he told FierceHealthcare. That revelation offered more than just a clever workaround to make the trial work, however. “It was a useful metaphor for me to think about how sometimes we only allow treatments to be evaluated in individuals who might not need it, but prevent other patients who we really think need a treatment from enrolling in trials,” Yeh said.

Of course, just because you could do the trial doesn’t mean anybody actually needed to do it in order to provide evidence that you’re better off falling out of an airplane at altitude with a parachute than without. As with many lines of scientific inquiry, however, the process of actually conducting and publishing the study provided a variety of thought-provoking insights.

Behind the humor, the study makes a valuable point about conducting and interpreting research in context. According to Yeh, that scratches a deeper itch among researcher-clinicians, who have to balance doing right by their patients even in the absence of evidence and overseeing patients whose treatments get determined by the sheer luck of a double-blind study in the service of scientific discovery.

The bigger message here, Yeh said: “Always read the fine print.”

The study also raises questions about how the public consumes scientific information. As funny as it is, if not literally or figuratively groundbreaking, there’s something mildly discomfiting about the buzz produced by an article about jumping out of airplanes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Yeh himself has contributed recent analysis related to far more serious policy issues. He notes that his group has recently led a number of studies looking at the potential unintended consequences of well-intentioned health policies, which sounds like information a bit more worthy of broad distribution.

For his part, Yeh is taking it all in stride. “The science that tends to be publicized clearly is not always the best science or the science that will have the greatest impact on humankind,” he says, pointing out yet another unintended insight proved by the PARACHUTE study.

“If we gave people a good laugh, then I don’t feel badly about the PARACHUTE trial going viral,” he adds. “Especially if we boxed out some other study on the benefits of coffee drinking or low-carb diets.”

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