Read these red flags before you click.
By Jenn Sinrich
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Need health advice? How can you tell what to trust?
If you want to better understand your diabetes, arthritis, heart failure or tennis elbow, there’s no shortage of information just a few clicks away. The web can also be useful for reading up on a treatment plan your physician has recommended, as this can put you more at ease with a decision or at least generate more questions you can bring back to him or her during your next visit. But what’s less helpful is using individual online searches to arrive at an actual medical diagnosis. “Searching for explanations for an symptom can lead to all sorts of wild speculation and worry, often without cause, and can potentially delay getting medical attention you truly need,” says Jeffrey S. Luther, MD, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. “Instead, it’s best to consider your physician your most trusted source and to use online research as a mere basis for questions to ask your physician.” While you know better than to believe everything you read, we talked to top medical experts to help shine the light on obvious warnings that the health advice online might be leading you down the wrong path. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s not produced by a reputable source
To ensure online information is credible, start with websites from well-known and science- and government-backed organizations. “Medical and scientific organizations present more solid evidence and background for a condition or question,” says Dr. Luther. “This includes specialty societies like American Heart Association and American Cancer Society; government entities like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health.” Also helpful are sites reviewed by medical associations like familydoctor.org, which is written and reviewed by physicians and patient education professionals at the American Academy of Family Physicians. (Here are tips for finding a doctor you can trust.)
The information is not written by an expert
When it comes to dispensing information, a solid background in medical training is invaluable—be it from a nurse, a midwife, a physician, a psychologist, etc. “Training is imperative so that the advice provided has the necessary understanding of the normal, healthy system, as well as what could possibly go wrong, and takes these into account when answering a question,” says Carly Snyder, MD, reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist and physician. “If the advice is being given by someone without a degree or without any professional title and schooling to support their understanding of the issues, then consider looking instead for a website run by clinicians who likely have a more objective rather than subjective viewpoint.” If you do stumble upon a website written by someone with questionable credentials—i.e. “celebrity trainer”—be suspicious. “A veritable word-maze of letters after a name should also be a warning sign that they are more marketing gimmicks than an accurate portrayal of the individual’s capabilities,” says Matt Ferguson, MA, president and CEO of Progressive Health Innovations Inc. “Qualified health professionals will always put their highest academic credential, followed by any relevant specialized certifications.”
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Non-traditional forms of medicine are being recommended
While some non-traditional medical treatments can have benefits, they shouldn’t be touted as total replacements for traditional medication. “If a patient has cancer, they should not be following advice to refuse traditional medication and use herbal meds instead as a cure,” says Linda Girgis, MD, FAAFP, family physician in South River, New Jersey. “This is dangerous and can cause harmful outcomes.” No legitimate health practitioner from either end of the spectrum would suggest you ignore medical advice from a licensed professional, so consider this a sign that all of the rest of the information will be equally biased. “If non-traditional medications are being suggested, look at the totality of the advice, which should incorporate both traditional and nontraditional remedies,” says health psychologist Gretchen Kubacky, PsyD. Even more potentially dangerous: When people make decisions about their health based on information they read online without first consulting their doctor. “I’ve cared for patients in the hospital who became very ill after deciding to stop taking a medication based on something they read on a medical blog,” says Lorellen M. Green, MD, medical director of inpatient services and hospitalists at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. “Therefore, it’s important to be open with your physician about doing research online, ask for guidance on reputable sites, and to try not to make decisions about health issues based on internet research alone.” The more you read, the more perspective you can gain. Most importantly, bring your research information to your physician so that you can have a dialogue and share in the decision-making process.
The article uses words such as “miracle cure,” and “immediate results”
Don’t trust any health advice that suggests you purchase something that will heal you completely, lead to massive weight loss, or provide any other huge bodily change, especially if it promises to work quickly and without side effects. “There are no quick fixes available for purchase online, and definitely none that are safe and legal, let alone FDA-approved,” says Dr. Snyder. “If your physician hasn’t suggested a particular treatment, then the website promising to sell you the ‘quick fix’ option is probably trying to scam you and certainly doesn’t care about you or your health.” Some websites are designed to look just like reputable ones, but are pushing an agenda that’s not supported by any medical establishment. “Any website that takes a general stance against medication for any reason is suspect and should not be trusted,” Dr. Snyder says. “Similarly, any health advice suggesting that all ailments can be cured using one treatment or one supplement is not legitimate.”
Those giving the advice are selling their own product
If the only “proof” is personal stories about individual results, buyer beware! It might be engaging, inspiring, and interesting, but this is not scientifically factual. “Any advice that’s based purely on an individual’s personal experience is unreliable, inherently biased and unlikely to be generalizable to your situation,” says Dr. Snyder. “Health advice found on a website devoted to one particular point of view should be considered suspect because any site with an agenda is not presenting a fair and impartial view of medical information.” Rule of thumb: Websites that present medical information should not present opinion. “Medicine isn’t emotional, it’s science, so if you have the sense that a website is trying to implore you to believe something by appealing to your heart or by scaring you, then question the website’s validity,” she says.
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Studies are cited but when you look closer, there are only a handful of subjects
Medical websites should have sound, peer-reviewed research available to support whatever claims or suggestions are being made. The research being used should be available for you to read and should link to a reputable medical journal published within the last five years or be available through pubmed.com. “A website using JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine or another well known, reputable journal as a reference is a more trustworthy website as compared to a website using poor data from unknown or debunked research,” says Dr. Snyder. “It takes a bit of detective work on your part to figure out if the site is legit using this method, but it’s worth it in the long run because many poor websites are designed to fool you by using poor research, old research, and debunked research to try to support their bogus claims.” A good example of this is anti-vaccine websites that use disproven research to support medically unsound statements. Advice should always be made knowing all the facts about a case—if all the facts are unavailable, then the advice should state that the information provided is not specific to any one person or any one scenario, and should encourage people to speak to their personal doctor for more direct guidance.
The advice you read clashes with what your doctor or other provider told you
Any advice that directly encourages someone to go against the advice of his physician is not only giving bad advice but is giving potentially dangerous advice. “While there are sometimes more than one approach to treating various diseases, the discrepancy should be made clear to you in this article,” says Girgis. “If this happens and you are not convinced your doctor gave you the right advice, take what you found back to the doctor for clarification, but also listens if the doctor tells you it is bad advice.” It is appropriate to suggest getting a second opinion, or discuss alternatives with a doctor, but it is potentially dangerous and medically unsound to suggest someone go against a treatment plan without knowing why a doctor made specific recommendations. Consider the information you’ve gleaned from the website as knowledge you’d like to take back to your doctor, but remember that he or she is the person you should trust most.