7 Ways to Avoid Falling for False Health Information Online

The moment you feel a tickle in your throat or spot a new rash on your child it’s easy to turn to Dr. Google. From the comfort of your couch, you can enter your symptoms into the search engine and begin down a rabbit hole of potential causes, symptoms, and treatments. “Dr. Google has never been to any of our med classes, but he is probably the most popular doctor out there,” Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an OB-GYN and founder of Her Viewpoint joked at the BlogHer Health panel about discerning the reliable health information online from the fake, sponsored by Pfizer, in February.

Sometimes, an online algorithm of results from Google and other search engines can help you figure out what’s going on. But turning to the web does not always mean accurate information — nor is it the best way to keep up with your health. 

Here, how to discern between good and questionable health information online and offline, according to physician panelists from the event.

Don’t be fooled by glitz and glam

Just because something *looks* professional doesn’t necessarily mean the information is solid. “It can be hard to tease those things apart,” Kara Natterson, M.D., a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author of puberty and parenting books said at the panel. 

Health sites can often be boring and not the most aesthetically exciting. “In general, the things in medicine that look the least shiny and beautiful are usually pretty legitimate.” (Ahem, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s site.) Why? If a plain site is packed with legitimate information, that can be a sign that the organization is spending its resources on quality information — not aesthetics.

“As an OB-GYN, our golden standard is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,” Dr. Shepherd added. “The website might not look so great, but the information is valid and evidence-based.”

Research before you buy

In a world of Instagram ads and sponsorships, it can seem like every product that’s touted on a website is a must-buy. “We’re all consumers and very smart people are working really hard to get us to buy some good and some not-so-good products,” said Dr.Natterson. 

See a health product you like? Before buying on impulse, send it around to trusted friends, your doctor, or a healthcare provider who is educated in the field. Doing so can help give you context to understand where a product might fit into your life, if it’s everything it’s cracked up to be and how it could really benefit you. 

You can always go back and buy it — and that’s a heck of a lot better than racking up bills or having to return stuff that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t fall for marketing buzzwords

Ever see a food product that touts itself as ‘natural’ on the label? “The world ‘natural’ means nothing,” said Dr. Natterson. “That is the single most important vocab lesson of your day, because when you buy a product, any product is allowed to advertise itself as natural, and that’s fine, but that’s not a reason to get it.” 

The same could also be said about a blog post referring to someone as ‘Dr.’ or an article touting a study. Without knowing what someone’s true degrees are — and without being able to read studies and know which ones or which journals are legitimate — it can be hard to discern between legitimate sources of content and not-so-great ones. 

Confused? If you can build a network with a few good people you trust, you can always run anything your questions by them for verification or explanation.

Keep scrolling — for the footnotes

Not on Insta — on the sites you’re reading. “If you do a quick scroll to the bottom of a site, you can usually see where they got their information from,” said Dr. Shepherd. 

Was it from a trusted medical journal? Was it written by an expert in the field like a doctor? Does a short bibliography simply mention that the information was pulled from someone’s blog? 

Citations can help you validate information. “I can’t say enough about looking at the source,” said Stephanie Canale, M.D., a board-certified physician and founder of Lactation Lab. If you’re not sure a source is legitimate, ask people you trust who knows the industry. “Finding credible sources is actually quite easy. There are a lot of physicians who have no problem taking time to help someone.”

Bookmark the good

It goes without saying that not all health websites are created equal — but there are plenty of standouts that experts trust. “I usually send people to CDC.gov [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website], which has very strong evidence-based information,” said Dr. Shepherd. 

Yasmin Agosti, M.D., global medical lead for the RSV program at Pfizer, pointed to websites for professional associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They have a great website that’s very family-friendly and easy to understand.”

Dr. Natterson also referred to a website called Uptodate, which includes some free content but is mostly viewable via subscription. “It’s every doctor’s favorite website because it is all the up to date information that is totally valid. You can always ask your doctor to give you the uptodate.com information.”

When in doubt, ask your doctor what sites you should be bookmarking and going back to overtime, suggested Dr. Naterson.

When in doubt, see your doctor IRL

Getting hit with a tidal wave of online information can be very overwhelming, said Dr. Agosti. That’s why, often, it’s best to streamline the information you’re finding online with an offline, in-real-life conversation. “Some guidance from whoever your trusted healthcare provider is is really helpful because it can help you have the right questions and go to the right sources.” 

This also ensures advice is tailored to you and your individual needs. That kind of specific guidance (that can only really come from someone who knows you and your medical history) is key in making sure health advice fits in with your lifestyle, medical conditions, and goals. 

Find a new support system if you’re not happy with your existing one

Ever feel like you’re not exactly able to talk to your doctor about your individual journey or discuss different options for a treatment plan or a condition you might have? It might be time to look elsewhere. 

“I always advocate for patients to get a second opinion or to go talk to another healthcare provider in order to find someone where that relationship becomes such that they want to go to that person as their advocate,” said Dr. Shepherd. If you don’t feel like you’re getting along with your doctor or feel as though you’d like to have a conversation elsewhere, ask for a referral, see if you have a friend who has a doctor they get along well with, or do some research on specialists in your area. 

“That’s the best thing you can do for your health,” Dr. Shepherd emphasized. “Find someone who can advocate for you.”

 

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