You’ve likely fallen prey to bad online health advice at some point, whether you’ve paid for the “remarkable” weight loss powers of some rare, exotic fruit or questioned your doctor’s orders in light of a “groundbreaking” new study.
With so many sources of online health information, it’s easy to fall for exaggerated health claims, poorly explained medical research or guidance that’s just plain wrong. Knowing how to wade through the muck can take a bit of work and a lot of critical thinking.
More than 70 percent of Internet users search online for health information within a given year, according to data from the Pew Research Center. But it’s likely that some of them are being misled by well-intentioned bloggers, social media health gurus and sometimes even mainstream media.
Here’s how you can tell the good from the bad:
1. Know who is behind the information.
Some health sites make it difficult to know who is in control. Check the bottom of the page for potential affiliations or an “about us” section on the website. This isn’t just about who wrote the content you’re reading, but also who is paying them. Even non-profit organizations may have an agenda in telling only one side of the story, not to mention drug makers or anyone else who may profit from a certain spin.
2. Check the author’s qualifications.
If you’re not sure whether to trust a website, look for the author’s or editor’s qualifications. Is the person interpreting medical research qualified? Is the writer offering medical advice a doctor? Is the content reviewed by a doctor? Someone who is merely interested in nutrition may not be the best source of dietary advice, for instance, and running a popular wellness blog doesn’t necessarily make someone a health expert.
3. Personal stories are not clear evidence.
Popular blogs are notorious for making claims that solution X should work for you, because it did for this guy. If an anecdote piques your interest, evaluate its trustworthiness by looking for supporting or conflicting evidence elsewhere.
4. Examine the website’s sources.
Recommendations and advice should come with evidence. If the website is offering advice or guidance without divulging its sources, you may want to look elsewhere to shore up (or counter) its position.
5. Check the freshness.
How old is the information you’re reading? Whether a blog post or a static web page, check for a date. This is especially important when the source is analyzing studies and trials, because what seemed new and groundbreaking just a few years ago could now be obsolete. This doesn’t necessarily mean that new is always better — quality, not just timeliness, matters — but outdated websites aren’t likely to offer the entire, updated picture.
6. Watch out for exaggerations.
“If it sounds too good to be true, in health care, it almost always is,” says Gary Schwitzer, publisher and founder of HealthNewsReview.org, a website that analyzes media coverage of health care news.
In his research, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, Schwitzer and his team scored most analyzed stories (25 percent of all eligible health news stories from 2006 through 2013) as “unsatisfactory” on five out of 10 measurements, with many of them exaggerating health claims without discussing risks and potential harms.
7. Look for objective coverage.
If the source you’re reading seems to be selling you something — whether the product they’re touting or simply their opinion — be wary. Look for discussions of risks, side effects, drawbacks and even conflicting evidence. Objective and trustworthy sources will include the entire picture, even aspects that are less flattering.
8. News isn’t always better.
News websites and online news magazines must exercise due diligence as well. Journalists have a responsibility to look further than a press release from researchers. So keep an eye out for objectivity and discussions of cost, according to Schwitzer.
“Everything in health care carries a cost,” he says, adding his research found nearly 70 percent of 2,000 news stories didn’t mention cost. “There’s a reason why the U.S. spends a greater percentage of the gross domestic product (on health costs) than any country on earth — and without the outcomes to show for it — so always look for cost information.”
9. Put everything in perspective.
A “groundbreaking” new study on the health benefits of onions shouldn’t send you running to the grocery store. With your health, the big picture is key, and the old standards of eating good foods, staying active, getting plenty of rest and reducing stress can still go much further than adding a magical food to your diet.
10. When in doubt, ask an expert.
It never hurts to double-check the advice you’re getting online, especially if it raises red flags or doubts. When online research doesn’t clear things up, email an expert or call your doctor. Sometimes the simplest solutions come when you contact people you know are “in the know.”
Elizabeth Renter writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills.