Truth or hype? How to tell the difference in medical news.

The internet is an amazing source of information and misinformation. How do you know if what you are reading is accurate?

Be a skeptic

Last summer we were inundated with alarmist headlines about “dry drowning” after the tragic death of 4-year-old Frankie Delgado, who died days after an apparently harmless dunk under water while swimming off of the coast of Texas. While this child’s death was heart-breaking, the media took the parents’ understanding of what happened and ran with it. They cited “dry drowning” as the cause of death even though the final cause of death was not actually known at the time. “Dry drowning” was being reported by all of the mass media outlets, often repeating the same inaccurate information from the same sources.  But in their haste to get in on the action, they got information central to the story completely wrong: There is no such thing as “dry drowning.”  Doctors and medical organizations tried to balance out this avalanche of misinformation, but were lost in the noise.

How do you avoid being duped into believing fake medical news?

Investigate

Who is the author? What kind of credentials do they have? Frequently, websites will allow you to see what other articles that author has published. Is there a niche topic that the author seems to be an expert on? I’m suspicious if the article has no links to a source, does not quote someone I would consider a topic expert, or simply quotes evidence presented elsewhere on the same website. If an author is quoting second-hand information, like what a person said a doctor told them without actually interviewing the doctor, I’d be skeptical. If there are no clear sources for the information being presented, this suggests that the comments being made are more opinion and less fact.

Every website is pushing an agenda: to educate, convert you to their way of thinking about health, diet or religion, to sell you something. Cross-reference the website’s claims with alternative sources of information. If a website uses the words “conspiracy,” “big pharma,” espouses that their way is the “only” way to do something, or discourages you from utilizing any conventional medical treatments, ask yourself “why?” Even when two groups have differing opinions on a topic, it is unusual that there would be zero common ground. This will help you to understand the article’s biases and allow you to consider how much credence you should to put into what is being presented to you as “fact.”

How do I know if the medical information I’m reading is trustworthy or not?

Key to truly understanding what is fact is to read multiple perspectives on the same topic from different sources. Don’t simply read about the flu on mass media websites like CNN, USA Today, and CBS. Mass media outlets often regurgitate the same sensational headlines and quote the same sources, so you’re essentially getting a one-sided take on the topic.

Similarly, don’t get all of your information only from sources you agree with. Mix it up with perspectives you don’t normally ascribe to. Consider all sides of a topic, especially if you plan to treat yourself or your loved ones with unconventional therapies.

Branch out and read material geared toward lay people from medical organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Heart Association, or the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Mass media health outlets like the Mayo Clinic are generally good, but an article about ankle sprains may be written by a geriatrician or may not have been updated for a while.

There are a lot of “doctors” out there. What kind are you seeing?

It is just as important to understand the source of your in-person medical advice as it is the source of your online advice. Not everyone who calls themselves a “doctor” these days is a medical doctor (MD or DO), which can be confusing at best and misleading at worst.

Medical doctor training is the most rigorous track of medical education. All medical doctors must have a college degree, complete four years of medical school and at least three years of residency training, during which they work up to 80 hours per week taking care of patients. The curriculum, licensing exams, residency and fellowship training programs are transparent and nationally standardized. We pass 1 to 2 examinations after residency training and another examination every 8-10 years to be board-certified in our area of expertise. You can be confident that one board-certified cardiologist is trained to the same standard as another board-certified cardiologist.

Everyone should be able to choose their provider, but do your research and understand who you are seeing.

Health and people are complicated

The internet is a starting point from which to learn more about your health. Educating yourself gives me a point from which to either validate what you’ve heard or educate you further.  Dr. Google shouldn’t be your only source of information. It’s my job to use my experience and education to tease out what your body is trying to tell you and advise you from there.  That’s what doctors are here to do, and you should expect nothing less.

Irene Tien is an emergency physician and can be reached at My Doctor Friend.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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