Fact or Fiction? How to Find Medical Information You Can Trust

Online medical information is EVERYWHERE! You see advertisements for new medicines as you shop for clothes. Flashy graphics coax you into clicking on an ad promising a “miracle cure” while you try to order take-out. Your former third grade classmate just retweeted a testimonial touting a new weight loss supplement. Surely, you’re not being deceived, or are you? Listed below are some tips to help you weed out online medical MISinformation from trustworthy and helpful medical facts.

Stop Fake Medical News
  1.  Consider trusting information from sources you’ve heard of. Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and other large research hospitals have excellent patient education websites. Information on these websites comes from multiple research studies/sources and is reviewed by experts before being published. These centers also produce trustworthy and sharable social media posts. Federal agencies and well-known professional organizations have similar publishing guidelines.
  2. Check for sources, links for further reading, contact information, and dates. Trustworthy medical information will have links to both the sources of the original data and to further reading. If a website gives statistics, but does not link you to a research study, BEWARE! Contact information and credentials for the author of the article/website should be present. Finally, is the information you are reading up-to-date? Medical information changes rapidly, and tip #5 can help you to determine if there is newer information available.
  3.  Check multiple online sources. Did you see a frightening Facebook post and are now considering stopping your medication or refusing the COVID-19 vaccine? People can be paid to post fake information, so use tips #1 and #2 to do your own internet search. If you can’t find the information from multiple reputable sources, then consider it to be less reliable.
  4.  Is a website making incredible claims as a way to sell something? This may not always be obvious, but when you use tip #2 and click on a link for further reading, you may come across a page which is trying to sell a product, seminar, etc. Also, websites that make health claims should freely list the sources of their information, which is best obtained from research studies involving human beings. Unfortunately, results from research studies not involving humans can look promising, but a majority of these results do not end up holding true when the same study is done in humans (for various reasons). Humans are complex!
  5.  Ask YOUR doctor. Have you used tips #1-4 above and still have questions? It is important for you to trust your primary care doctor and feel comfortable asking them questions. Physicians have been trained on how to evaluate the quality of research studies and therefore can help to determine if what you see online is fact or fiction. Don’t rely on Dr. Oz — he got into trouble for making false claims about a weight loss supplement. He could have used these tips!

For further reading, check out this article written by the National Institute on Aging (Part of the NIH): https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/online-health-information-it-reliable#

Melissa Boylan MD, FAAFP
Family Physician and Owner of Noreta Family Medicine