How To Find Trustworthy Online Healthcare Advice In A Web Full Of Lies
For your convenience here is the audio version of this article. Press Play to listen.
There is simply so much information available on the Internet, and even more people willing to twist it to their own agenda. So who do you trust when it comes to that most precious of commodities: your health?
A checklist for vetting health info online
This article will expand on exactly what to look for when digging for health info. The same way you can tell when you’re being sold dodgy car insurance over the phone, you can spot if a provider of health “information” is trying to sell you clicks or products.
Ask the following questions to confirm a reliable source:
- Is the article published by a federal institute, medical school, or large nonprofit?
- Does the article use reliable sources, peer-reviewed studies, .org sites, and federal institutes of health? And does it list them in an accessible format?
- Does the author remain cautious about any benefits or health effects they mention?
- Is the article inclusive? Has it considered different demographics? Is the information its providing specific to your age group/sex/ethnicity?
- Does the article use recent information?
- Does the website tell you about its mission and authors?
- Does the author have medical qualifications, or has the information been medically reviewed by a relevant professional?
These questions will help you identify when a medical author is misleading you:
- Does the headline try to elicit an emotional response?
- Is the article actively trying to sell you products?
- Does the article make outlandish or unsupported claims?
- When making claims about disease prevention, does it use “reduces the risk” or “may help reduce the risk”?
- Does the article say “a study proved this” without further qualification?
- How certain is the article about its claims?
- Do the surrounding ads try to hawk you potentially dangerous products, even if the article doesn’t itself try to sell anything?
When entering your golden years, health problems become not only more common but more severe. You may have to act as a caregiver for someone with a chronic ailment or find ways to cope without seeing a doctor. It’s also more than likely you’ll have to develop some kind of understanding around your own health problems.
Enter the internet – history’s biggest repository of useful, freely available information, but also its most prolific dumping ground of bullsh*t and porn. Team Vippi dived headlong into this pile (not the porn, don’t worry) to find out what makes a source of medical information reliable and what needs to go in the trash can.
How to make sure health info is reliable
Here, Dr. Erig Berg breaks how to confirm that what you’re reading is reliable.
Not all science is created equal. The people who mostly strongly doubt science are scientists themselves. Where religion is based on having faith in absolute certainty, science is a never-ending cycle of doubt, testing, re-testing, reviewing, and deliberately trying to break established theories. It’s the art of uncertainty.
Reliable health info in the Internet age will have the following characteristics.
An institutional host
Federal health agencies and institutes, medical schools, and large nonprofits have your best interests at heart. They’ll gather up-to-date information from across the country to help provide the clearest and most accurate information. If it’s a website ending in .org or .edu, it’s generally okay to use for reference.
PubMed, for example, is a medical study library of insane depth and breadth. The National Institutes of Health provide pages of well researched, regularly updated, and authoritative health info and advice – and they’re often the ones setting the guidelines for disease prevention.
Yes, mistrusting health institutions is the current flavor of the month. But they’re the bodies with the ability to fund research that exist solely for the purpose of managing and, eventually, eradicating diseases. They’d love nothing more than not having to exist anymore because they found a cure for cancer.
Authority and robust citation
While not technically government institutes, thousands of healthcare experts churn out information every day that helps people eat better, keep diseases at bay, and live better lives. Can we trust these?
Well, yes, but not all of them. You have to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the writer use Federal institutes, med schools, and nonprofits for their information?
- Are the stats from recent studies?
- When they mention a study, do they say “science has proven” (which is shady and vague) or provide more detail?
- Do they acknowledge that pretty much every study has room for improvement rather than finding studies that back their agenda without providing any criticism?
- Do healthcare professionals write or review the material?
- Can we see who the writers are? Are they subject matter experts?
- Does the site make its purpose or mission clear?
- Who sponsors the website? Is there an “About Us” page or a way to contact them?
- When was the page last reviewed or updated?
- Is the site a blatant data grab or does it offer guarantees of privacy protection?
Sites like Healthline and Medical News Today meet the above criteria, as well as MayoClinic and Cleveland Clinic, which are linked to functioning health facilities. WebMD, however popular they are, don’t link information to their claims or provide a source list – so how do we know where they’re finding their information?
It’s important to note that just because the author is medically qualified doesn’t mean they’re writing without an agenda, that they’re a particularly skilled or ethical doctor, and that what they’re saying is true.
Some doctors will do and say anything for money. So get a second opinion – find a range of product reviews, look at more than one article, and, if all else fails, seek consultation with your own doctor.
As we’ve mentioned, science does not make bold claims lightly. No single study has ever proven a theory. Medical solutions are found by consensus between large numbers of journals, and the most reliable suggestions are peer-reviewed, included in meta-analyses (large reviews that include many different studies to draw conclusions), and refuted in other studies.
Scientifically sound information sources will never claim outright that their answer is the best answer, or that a particular solution will work for absolutely everyone.
You might be frustrated that you may not get a definitive answer on, say, how to freeze that wart off your finger or get rid of your stress acne. But if a source acknowledges that all human bodies are different, not all home remedies work all the time, and you should probably see a doctor if you need more help, they’re thinking how medical scientists think.
- A reliable example: “There are few reliable, large-scale studies that found an Epsom salt bath to be an effective remedy for symptoms of eczema. But some people report that it provides relief, and it’s unlikely to cause harm – so you can give it a try, and if it works for you, great.”
- A misleading example: “Epsom salt baths can cure eczema, and people have been doing so for over 400 years.”
Everyone deserves accessible health information. Whatever sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, or tax bracket you fit into, you should be able to find information easily and freely.
Does this information include you in the conversation? Does an article on psoriasis, for example, include how psoriasis appears on darker skin? Does it avoid trying to scare you into seeing a doctor when you don’t need to, meaning that it accounts for people who may not have health insurance or the funds to seek treatment?
If the author of a piece assumes you have money, they’re aiming squarely at better-off people. And if they’re doing that, it’s probably in the hope you’ll buy or click through to a product. Plus, health information simply isn’t useful to you if it doesn’t include your characteristics.
- A reliable example: “If you have a headache, you can try over-the-counter remedies like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If these aren’t effective, or the pain gets worse, you should consider seeking consultation with a family physician to rule out other conditions.”
- A misleading example: “If you have a headache, see your doctor immediately. They’ll need to rule out a brain tumor.”
Up-to-date-ness and integrity
Science changes its mind all the time as new findings emerge and new technologies help doctors administer more effective treatments. A study being a study is not evidence in itself. It has to be recent. Otherwise people could hold up studies from 1605 A.D. and maintain that the Earth is still the center of the universe.
Journals also correct their course over time. The British Medical Journal, for example, published an article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1989 linking vaccines to autism. We still see the ripples of that study in the anti-vaxxer movement today.
It was never considered a particularly strong study. What anti-vaxxers are a little quieter about, however, is that, in 2011, the study was later deemed an actively fraudulent attempt to make cash for a rival vaccine distributor and withdrawn from publication.
The damage was already done – we’re still having this debate today. The fact remains that science changes, consensus changes, and sources of health information need to give you the very latest info available.
Paolo Macchiarini was another example of a fraudulent doctor who received acclaim for regenerating a patient’s windpipe using her own cells. He sold this procedure to at least 17 patients globally – and the procedure proved fatal in most of them. He hid the life-threatening complications of this artificial windpipe from clinical trials.
Another medical conman, Sami Anwar, would fake the results of clinical trials and often throw drugs away before even testing them, entering completely fictional data. He’s now participating in a landmark study: How to Rot in a Jail Cell for 28 Years.
You have to pick recent, peer-reviewed studies, or articles built from them.
Sources to avoid like the plague
You shouldn’t even give some health info sources your clicks.
Those after an emotional response
Clearly, health and wellness are highly emotive topics. We search because we’re scared. We find a lump that we don’t want to be anything more sinister. We have heart palpitations we want to confirm aren’t a heart attack. Anyone increasing that fear to serve an agenda is highly manipulative.
Especially throughout the COVID pandemic, livelihoods have been lost, lifestyles have been shattered, and mental health has been extremely fragile. Shark-like publishers will try to prey on that.
If the HEADLINE is ABSOLUTELY RIDDLED with UPPER-CASE LETTERS and HIGHLY DESCRIPTIVE ADJECTIVES, they really, really want you to feel some type of way. Does that sound like the kind of source you trust to give you balanced, unbiased info?
- A reliable example: “A range of COVID vaccines are available at the moment. None have a 100% rate of prevention. They significantly reduce the risk of developing severe symptoms, but COVID is transmissible in people who have had a vaccine. Authorities, at the moment, are recommending caution, and that you should continue physical distancing measures and mask-wearing where possible.”
- A bad example: “The COVID vaccine QUITE CLEARLY contains microchips courtesy of Bill Gates. It does nothing to stop COVID – but, yeah, if you want to DIE or surrender to the SATANIC NEW WORLD ORDER, then be our guest.”
Those that market products at the end.
Warning: Here be snake oil salesmen.
Some sites may recommend products from other retailers that gain them commission for every click or purchase. This isn’t bad in of itself – after all, health journalists need to eat too, and they are providing a service. You might want more immediate access to the products under discussion without having to search.
But if a site doesn’t offer a disclaimer letting you know they get some revenue from link clicks – or, worse, offers health info talking about the cancer-curing potential of essential oils before selling you essential oils directly – you need to take what they’re saying with a huge grain of salt.
This even applies to health info sites put out by private hospitals. While you might have confidence that their material is written by healthcare professionals, they stand to gain a lot of money by scaring you into seeing a doctor.
(Pro tip: Avoid .coms for life-or-death health information.)
Those that make outlandish or unsupported claims.
If a source doesn’t back its talk with reliable info or makes pie-in-the-sky health benefit claims, there’s something fishy going on. That advert for penis enlargement pills you have sitting in your inbox? Yeah, don’t click it. It doesn’t do the thing it says. (Don’t worry, we know you weren’t going to anyway.)
Often, complementary health options can support treatments like chemo, but they’re called complementary for a reason – they help soothe symptoms alongside more conventional treatments. Sources that claim, for example, that consuming marijuana edibles can definitely cure or prevent cancer simply aren’t operating within scientific bounds.
You need to be particularly careful with information around supplements, for example. Many vitamin and mineral supplements claim to enrich nails, make your skin better, and reduce your risk for several diseases. They can usually get away with it, because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements in the same way as drugs. But they may not have these effects, even if they contain what they promise on the packaging – and there’s nothing in place to make sure they do.
Keep an eye on the small print – sometimes, the side effects can be worse than the cure.
Those that casually claim one study “proves” anything.
Studies are exercises in caution – each one only exists to disprove the last, and the good ones suggest ways in which the current study could be improved. There are no “proofs”, only general scientific consensus.
No single study is useful in confirming the benefit of a food or medicine for treating a condition. If a few different reviews look at the study, find its design to be scientifically sound and its results valid, it’s more useful to apply to a wider scientific understanding on the topic.
- A reliable headline: Is chocolate good for you?
- A clickbait headline: “Candy company finds chocolate is good for you.” (This one’s actually real, and not even sarcastic – of course the candy company thinks chocolate is good for you. It’s also good for their bottom line.)
Those surrounded by ads hawking potentially dangerous products.
At best, this is a publication with ethically dubious advertising policies. At worst, they’re actively using misinformation to sell ineffective products for a commission.
If an advert for a drug, device, or remedy piques your interest on a health site, make sure you read the small print and look up more information on the drug from other sites. (DailyMed is a great place to do this, giving a full breakdown of the side effects and possible interactions with other drugs.)
Don’t panic. Not everything gives you cancer. And not everything will cure it either.
The main factors you’re looking for are measured claims, authoritative publishers and authors, and well-enforced ethical guidelines.
Mostly, though, you can trust your instinct. Some health problems really hurt or stick around for ages. You’re going to want to see a doctor if any medical issue is seriously messing with your life.
BMJ. (2020). US ex-doctor who ran fraudulent clinical trial sites is sentenced to 28 years in prison. https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m3946
BMJ. (2011). Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. https://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452
Is chocolate good for you? (2020). https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/is-chocolate-good-for-you.html
Online Health Information: Is It Reliable? (2018). https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/online-health-information-it-reliable
Page, S. (2018). Candy company finds chocolate is good for youhttps://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/candy-company-finds-chocolate-is-good-for-you/
Rasko, J., et al. (2017). Dr Con Man: the rise and fall of a celebrity scientist who fooled almost everyone. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/sep/01/paolo-macchiarini-scientist-surgeon-rise-and-fall