Health information on the Internet: 5 questions to ask

Many of our patients are besieged with unsolicited Internet advertisements offering them unbelievable solutions and cures to most of mankind’s medical maladies.  Patients come to and ask for advice about these promises to magically restore their health.

Since I receive so many requests from patients to evaluate these offerings, I have put together five questions that patients should ask themselves before proceeding to buy from websites offering outlandish claims, including restoring the fountain of youth.

1. Does it claim to cure everything? Some of these ads offer to cure diabetes, arthritis, cancer, promote weight loss, prevent baldness and restore hair, remove wrinkles, increase sex drive and cure erectile dysfunction, just to name a few.  Since the days of the traveling medicine man shows and snake oil salesmen, there have always been those that offer to sell the unwary elixirs, lotions, potions, monkeys paws and pills that will cure “all that ails ya.”  Physicians know that there is not one single remedy that will cure everything.

2. Are they trying to sell you something? Any website that reports a new discovery that requires the viewer to buy an e-book or pay for specialized treatments that are only available from their facility should be a red flag.  Also any site that encourages you to encourage your friends to sign up as resellers, as in Amway pyramids, should make the buyer very cautious.

3. Has this treatment already worked for thousands of anonymous people? The less reputable sites will post the outrageous benefits that have been received by unverifiable individuals who don’t give their name and city but only their initials.

4. Is this the medical secret doctors don’t want you to know about? Of the country’s 600,000 physicians, I doubt if there any of them who are a part of a secret conspiracy to keep people sick so that the doctors’ appointment books and schedules remain full.  Physicians are appalled and insulted at such a suggestion.  People become doctors because they are interested in helping others.

5. Are there any peer reviewed medical studies that can support their claims of curing so many maladies? It is difficult for the public and the media who are not trained in science and the scientific method to discern that a claim or a medical study is a well thought out evaluation that meets the criteria of a double blind study with placebo controls.  So many of these unreasonable and dramatic claims suffer from confirmation bias which is giving more weight to an opinion or conclusion that supports those promoting or selling the products.  This is the benefit of a peer review process for a scientific research report or article where multiple independent reviewers and scientists review the same study or research.

My advice to patients:  If you answer yes to one or two of these questions, be cautious and ask the seller for more information.  If you answer yes to three or more of these questions, shut down the site and don’t walk away, but run quickly and demand that they take you off of their mailing list.

I hope you have found this information useful and will help guide your patients on unsolicited Internet purchases.  For more information about buying medical products over the Internet, encourage patients to speak to their physician.  Final advice: Caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware, has never been more appropriate.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary, New Orleans, LA, and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MD, or on Facebook and Twitter.

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