What passes for medical advice online isn’t actually true or safe

How do we know what to believe about anything? In times past we read books, we took classes, we spoke to experts. These days? These days we do the same, but we also search the Internet. And we seem to do it with special fervor when it comes to questions about our health.

I can’t throw any stones here. Even a physician has knowledge that is limited to his or her specialty, or personal experience. (And even if I had kept all of my textbooks, they would be woefully out of date by now.) So, from time to time, I’ve searched the Internet for answers to questions.

Not only for myself and my family, but sometimes even when working. It’s not unusual for a patient to tell me about their chronic condition, only for me to discover that I have no idea what the syndrome actually is. Some of these diseases require specialized care and leave me scratching my head, so it’s off to the Web I go. Then, once I know enough not to sound entirely ignorant, I try to call their doctor to ask what to do next. Furthermore, new drugs and devices are constantly hitting the market, and I am not ashamed to say that I have to look many of them up! Emergency medicine physicians like myself are generalists, and we know when to cry “uncle.”

There are, for physicians, specialized smartphone applications or Web-based services. And for patients, there are plenty of websites available. Sadly, not all of them are very good. And not infrequently, the advice and direction given causes more anxiety than relief. I’ve noticed, even on physician websites, that there is a strong, and often inappropriate, tendency to “assume the worst.”

Therefore, patients who want to search for medical information should look for well-developed sites that are closely monitored by professionals, and which rely on scientific evidence. The popular site WebMD comes to mind. Likewise, some universities, or medical centers like Mayo Clinic, have extensive databases online that can be reliable and useful places to answer common medical questions. Finally, there are many new telemedicine services, which (for a fee) connect patients to real-time doctors who can answer questions and even diagnose or treat common illnesses.

However, some sources of information are less than stellar. Recently, physicians with the British Medical Journal assessed the therapies recommended on the Dr. Oz show and the popular series, The Doctors. The results were not encouraging for those who look to those programs for guidance. According to the research, only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the recommendations made were based on good science. I don’t believe that the hosts intentionally deceive; but when shows depend on advertising dollars, truth can sometimes be obscured for purposes of money or ratings.

Quite understandably, we all want answers; particularly when we’re worried. But in an age of exploding access to information, it’s wise to remember that not all that passes for medical advice is actually true and safe. And that in the end, for any serious concerns, it’s probably best to go to an expert and actually ask your doctor.

Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of the Practice Test and Life in Emergistan.  This article originally appeared in the Baptist Courier.

Image credit: Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

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