With all the health information available these days, it is not always so easy to decipher what is accurate and what is unreliable. Often, different sources will present conflicting advice and you are left to figure out who is telling the truth and who is just presenting more fake news. How can you tell if a source of health information is trust-worthy?
Where is it from?
Knowing how to tell what websites and authors are trustworthy is the first step of finding good information. Here’s how to tell if you’re accessing information from a team that’s worth trusting:
- It is from a well-known, trusted source of medical information. Good examples of well-known references are the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, or CDC. If you don’t see a source you recognize, research it. If you can’t find much information on a given source, chances are that many people are not trusting them as a source of health knowledge.
- Your personal doctor would give a thumbs-up on the source. Your doctor should be able to advise you about where to find pertinent information regarding your health. Also, they should be able to tell you if a source you found is providing accurate information.
- It is written by an expert. Today, anyone can write about medicine. You don’t need any special degree or even to meet any standard of medicine. A source written by an expert, such as a physician, should offer more evidence-based information, although this is not always the case. There are many other people writing great health information who aren’t clinicians. The writers background should be taking into consideration. A journalist writing about cardiac health obviously is less education about heart health than a cardiologist. It doesn’t mean they are offering bad advice. But, it should be noted and read through a different filter.
What information is the article based on?
Each article written about health should ‘cite’ where the information it is sharing came from – if there aren’t any citations, run! Now, unfortunately, even junk articles will explain where their information came from, and if you’re unsure about the author or website, actually looking at the sources in the article will make it really clear if it is telling you the truth:
- They cite real research studies. If a study is telling you ground-breaking news yet they cite a study that is casually written and easy to read or only included a handful of subjects, it is not science based. In order to be significantly significant, it should have thousands if not tens of thousands of test subjects. Any recommendation needs to stand the test of time to be valid and cannot do so with only a few subjects. It is an interesting observation, it could be a coincidence – but it is not evidence.
- They cite things that you can Google to confirm. Evidence-based medicine is the same wherever you read it: for example it is a fact that Metformin is now first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes, so that piece of information should be the same wherever you read about diabetes. This is a basic cornerstone in medicine and should be citable across all sources. If an article or site does not link to other reputable sources, you have to wonder why. It may be that they just don’t link to other sites but they may also avoid it because they facts are not the standard of medical care. When in doubt, copy and paste a ‘fact’ from an article you are questioning and Google it – if the first search results are websites from universities, medical centers, clinics (their websites might end in .edu or .gov), that fact is more trustworthy. If the only places Google can find the same information from the article you’re reading are websites you’ve never heard of, it isn’t worth trusting.
It is not written to entertain, entice, or surprise you
Your health is the most valuable thing you have, and unfortunately the internet knows that. Health education is (most of the time) not flashy, fun, or over-the-top – it is effective, science-based, and can be dry. Here’s what to look for to avoid information that is selling you something (in one way or another):
- They are not selling any products. Sites that promote certain products, such as supplements, are providing promotional information to sell their products. Their main intention is to present information that makes you more likely to buy, not necessarily evidence-based medicine. If they are telling you how you can cure your cancer by taking their latest supplement, you should question how much they really care about your health and how much they care about their profits. Even if it is a doctor or someone who looks like a doctor selling products, you need to ask yourself the same question. Pro tip: if there are hyperlinks (like this one) in an article that link to Amazon or other online stores, that still means the author may be selling something.
- It isn’t the only place sharing news that seems “too good to be true”. If a source tells you about a secret pill to lose weight or improve your energy, and it isn’t being shared far and wide (including by reputable sources), they are lying. If there were a cheap, easy, natural solution to a problem that affects a lot of people, then lots of people would want to know about it! A real discovery would be shared from many different sources including places like medical centers, universities, and other trustworthy institutions. Medicine that works isn’t kept secret: doctors have not formed a conspiracy to hide alternatives, we hate not having a cheap and easy treatment option for our patients as much as anyone else. If you really want a piece of health news to be true and you find a single source saying they have just the answer you’re looking for, it probably is not really as good as they say it is – it even could be dangerous.
- It doesn’t use exaggerated language: If you’re reading something that makes huge positive claims – like a “groundbreaking” new treatment or a “breakthrough cure” – be skeptical. This may not be selling a specific supplement or secret pill, and even reputable news outlets sometimes engage in this type of writing. Why shouldn’t you trust this type of health information? Using hyperbolic language sells more digital newspaper subscriptions and makes stories spread farther on social media, so it gets used even if it isn’t an accurate description of a study or real research. Again, go to the sources and see what the new “breakthrough” actually does before believing it is a miracle.
There are literally libraries of health information at our fingertips whenever we log in to our computers. Wading through the sea of information can be quite overwhelming. In a nutshell:
- Determine whether a source is a good one or not.
- Check their references and make sure other reputable places are saying the same thing: if they are, you can be reassured that you are getting valid information.
- Be skeptical of any health information that is selling something, in one way or another.
About the Author
Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP is a family physician practicing in South River, New Jersey. She was voted one of the top 5 healthcare bloggers in 2016. Follow her on twitter @DrLindaMD.