How to Navigate the Internet for Health Information
If you’re like me, then you have used the internet to search for health related information – A LOT. One report indicated that Americans spend an average of 52 hours a year obtaining information from the internet, but actually only visited with a physician 3 times a year. Let’s face it, unlike your doctor; the internet can always see you right now. With so much information available, and no one to truly regulate what content is displayed, how can anyone trust what they read?
Here a few tips to consider:
Who developed the site? The website should clearly indicate who develops and updates their content, as well as provide a means for contacting them. Sites developed by a major medical association, patient advocacy group, or clinicians are generally more reputable and up to date. Be wary of any site that provides medical information and is also trying to sell you something – that is a huge conflict of interest.
Caution with search engines – The exact wording you enter into your search and which engine you use could both significantly impact the sites that you are directed towards. Some search engines allow organizations to pay for premium access at the top of the list. Do not assume that just because a link is at the top of the search or on the first page that it is the most accurate source of information. It may help to try several different searches and visit multiple sites to compare information.
Medical studies – Many attention grabbing headlines are first reported by newspapers or online reporting agencies. They often have clever or attention seeking wording, such as ‘first ever’ or ‘new cure’ for a certain condition. Many people may not even read the article, but use the headline to draw conclusions, which is not the best idea. In addition, many of the studies are actually conducted in animals or were reported from a medical conference and not a peer reviewed medical journal, which can both dramatically affect the ability to replicate and generalize the findings. Bottom line – if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Celebrity testimonials – Keep in mind that many of these are paid endorsements with companies using a beautiful famous person to basically help sell their product. Other celebrities may offer their opinion regarding health conditions as they or a loved one may be affected. The most recent controversial example is with some celebrities publicly stating that vaccines cause autism, a statement that is completely false and not backed by any scientific evidence. However, a celebrity’s broad ranging appeal and ability to reach the general public far surpasses that of experienced physician experts.
I try my best to be a strong advocate for my patients and I have spent countless hours perusing the internet to better understand the information that my patients are reading. This is even challenging for me at times, due to the sheer volume alone. I have found that there is a significant amount of misinformation available at the click of a mouse. The best advice I can offer is to use the internet with caution, as a way to gather information and develop questions that you can then discuss with, not in place of, your physician.