OMG! Studies Go Acronym-Crazy?>
Be Well

OMG! Studies Go Acronym-Crazy

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

I have a pet peeve: The crazy acronyms used to name many medical studies.

An acronym is an abbreviation formed by the initial letters of a multi-word name or phrase, usually pronounceable as a word, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) or NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). There are plenty of humorous acronyms, some in the medical field, such as FABIANS (Felt Awful But I’m Alright Now Syndrome) or TEETH (Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy).

But in recent years, in the quest for memorable titles for their studies, researchers (or the PR folks at drug companies or universities) have created “acronyms” that often stand for awkwardly or even nonsensically worded phrases. The acronyms often stray far from the initial letters, sometimes using seemingly random letters.

Here are just a few acronym-branded studies we’ve reported on:

  • SPRINT MIND: Systolic Blood PRessure INtervention Trial—Memory and Cognition IN Decreased Hypertension, covered here. Not to be confused with the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) study, which we discussed several years ago.
  • VITAL: VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL, discussed in December 2018 and in this recent article about vitamin D.
  • REDUCE-IT: REDUction of Cardiovascular Events with Icosapent Ethyl-Intervention Trial (about an omega-3 drug), also covered in December 2018.
  • SMILES: Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States (about diet and depression), which we discussed in 2017.

I am hardly the only reader puzzled or annoyed by these creations. Three years ago, an online commentary on Medscape that took on the subject was subtitled “ACRONYM: an Albeit Cool but Really Obtuse Naming strategY for Medical studies.” As it noted, until a few decades ago, clinical trials rarely had names. The turning point may have been the famous and aptly dubbed MRFIT (Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial) in 1981. The trend took off after that, with the number of major cardiology trials with acronym titles, in particular, growing from 245 in 1992 to 4,100 in 2002. And with more and more studies being published every year, matters have only gotten worse since then.

Eventually, catchy acronyms (especially uplifting ones) were used for multiple studies, with dozens called MIND, HEART, SMART, HOPE, or CURE—standing for different titles and thus leading to potential confusion. In some cases, no doubt, researchers hit upon a catchy acronym and then came up with an awkwardly worded title for their study to fit it.

Studies with an acronym title tend to get cited more often than those without one, and those with well-designed acronyms tend to do best of all, according to a semi-tongue-in-cheek systematic study in the journal BMJ in 2014 titled SCIENTIFIC (SearCh for humourIstic and Extravagant acroNyms and Thoroughly Inappropriate names For Important Clinical trials). It included a list of the 25 best and worst acronym names. It’s hard to choose, but among the truly awful is the RATIONAL trial, which somehow stands for: aspiRin stAtins or boTh for the reductIon of thrOmbin geNeration in diAbetic peopLe. They dared to call that rational!

If there were justice in the world, studies with groan-worthy acronym titles would be penalized or even banned by search engines and medical librarians.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Why Are Drug Names So Crazy?