There is an incredible amount of health information available to us today through the internet. Not only is it readily available, but it pops up constantly through ads and social media even when we aren’t searching for it. Because we depend so heavily on news,
social media, and online information for health guidance, I’m curious what your reaction would be if I told you that 88% of all online health information is distorted in some way?
Some of you may have trusted me and responded by thinking, “Wow! I had no idea,” or maybe even, “I could believe that!” while others might have been skeptical and wanted to know how I could possibly make that claim. Even though I can provide you with my source(that I do consider to be pretty credible) for where that statement comes from, I might have skewed or overgeneralized the information myself. The big question is how can you as the reader figure out how credible that statement is? Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult if not impossible unless I provide you with my source. Even then, it can still take a lot of time to find the truth and know how to apply it to your life and your health.
When I was a pharmacy student on one of my clinical hospital rotations, I encountered a very extreme example of a patient who had wholeheartedly embraced inaccurate health information. They had type 2 diabetes and were in the hospital for a bone infection(osteomyelitis) in their foot. The infection had become so bad that their foot would need to be amputated in order for them to survive.
Every health care worker interacting with this patient tried to explain that this infection had been caused by their uncontrolled diabetes. Their blood glucose was consistently so high that they had lost feeling in their feet(peripheral neuropathy) and developed a sore that they couldn’t feel which became infected and had now infected their bone.
Despite our relentless efforts to educate this patient about the proper care and medication needed for diabetes and how they could not only salvage their limbs, but also continue to survive, they refused any medical treatment except for essential oils. Now, where this patient found all their health information, I’m not completely sure, but it was costing them their quality of life and before long, their life itself.
Again, this is an extreme example, but if we’re not careful and educated about how to determine if information is valid or not, we could find ourselves in a world of hurt. So, let’s get to it!
How can we determine if the health information we are provided is valid, credible, and applicable?
Step 1: Be SKEPTICAL
It might not be in your nature to be skeptical, but this is a good approach when evaluating health information. Start with 5 basic questions:
1. Who runs or created the site or app? Can you trust them?
- Is it a stand alone practitioner? What are their credentials? Are they supported by others in their field? Do they provide credible references and research studies?
2. What are they promising or offering? Does it sound to good to be true?
- Watch out for exaggerated claims such as: “cure all”, “miracle”, “new cure”, “breakthrough”, “new discovery”, “totally safe.”
3. When was this information written or reviewed? It is up-to-date?
- If you don’t see a date, don’t assume the information is recent. It may be outdated.
- Check to see if the information has been reviewed(“peer review” is a common practice of research articles to increase their validity).
- It could also be reviewed by a site like Health on the Net (HON) that validates sites that meet their criteria for credibility and accurate information.
4. Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
- Look for government sites such as the National Institutes of Health(NIH) and well respected hospitals and universities or national organizations to support the information.
- Evidence-based studies published in medical journals are credible sources.
- Subscribe to my email newsletter to get a free outline on determining the strength of different types of research studies – not all research is created equal!
5. Why does the site or app exist? Is it selling something?
- Oftentimes if someone is trying to sell you something, the information provided will be distorted to make it seem more appealing and more beneficial than it really is.
- Their focus is more on getting you to buy in to what they are selling so they can make money and less on how it will effect you.
step 2: fact check
1. Use sites that are designed for fact checking health information
- Media Bias/Fact Check: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/
- This site gives the history behind a website, answers many of the questions above, and gives a rating for how factual the information is that the site provides.
- Quackwatch: https://quackwatch.org/
- This site provides a guide to quackery and health fraud.
- National Counsel Against Health Fraud: https://www.ncahf.org/
- This site provides weekly publications addressing current health fraud.
- FDA: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/health-fraud-scams
- Health fraud information directly from the FDA
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: https://ods.od.nih.gov/
- Please do your research about dietary supplements!
2. Search for multiple credible sources that support what you are reading or considering
- If there is enough research to support a health claim, you will be able to find multiple credible sources supporting it.
- Remember your most credible resources are government sites, well respected hospitals and universities, national organizations, and research studies published in medical journals.
3. Pay attention to references
- Always look for references accompanying the information you read.
- If references are provided, do a little digging to check their claims and make sure they are using credible resources(they could still put a spin on cited information – most people don’t take the time to fact check cited references).
- If you are not provided with references, request them. If they cannot be provided, they are hiding something. This information should be avoided and could be harmful.
step 3: stick with the basics
- There is a reason government institutions, large universities and national organizations are not the ones promoting the latest fad diet or the new health solution that is going to change your life. These institutions base their health recommendations on decades of health research. Because of how well researched their health information is, there is very rarely(almost never) a ground breaking, life changing announcement that everyone should try.
- It seems easier in our fast paced world to find a quick solution, a new diet, or a weight loss medication. However, quick fixes usually result in short, not-so-healthy successes.
- If you are in doubt about the credibility of health information, stick with the basics. The guidelines for standard healthy living are based on decades of research presented and supported by all of those large credible institutions. These guidelines take effort to follow, but are a great guide for developing a healthy lifestyle.https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/eat-healthy/dietary-guidelines-for-americans/index.html
step 4: proceed with caution
- If you choose to follow the latest fad even after you have done all your fact checking and realize there isn’t a whole lot of data, but still want to try, please proceed with caution.
- There may be some benefits, but there are always risks. Without any data, those risks are completely unknown.
Now, lets put your new skills to the test! I have provided some references below to support my claim that 88% of all health information online is distorted in some way. Is my claim valid? Why or why not? Let me know what you find in the comment section below!
“Subscribe to my email newsletter below to get a free outline on determining the strength of different types of research studies – not all research is created equal!”
- Haneef R, Lazarus C, Ravaud P, Yavchitz A, Boutron I (2015) Interpretation of Results of Studies Evaluating an Intervention Highlighted in Google Health News: A Cross-Sectional Study of News. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0140889. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0140889
- Boutron, I., Haneef, R., Yavchitz, A. et al.Three randomized controlled trials evaluating the impact of “spin” in health news stories reporting studies of pharmacologic treatments on patients’/caregivers’ interpretation of treatment benefit. BMC Med 17, 105 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-019-1330-9