Looking for accurate health information online? 6 tips to find it, from a doctor

Sep 9, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

“Lasso of truth” is part of Dr. Jen Gunter’s Twitter bio. And that’s what the board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist aims to be, whether it’s in her podcast (Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter), books, social media posts or newsletter — to correct and dispel myths, confusion and crackpot theories and products and illuminate evidence-based research and information. As we all know, the internet is chock full of nonsense, so here, Dr. Jen tells you how to sort out the junk science from the truth. 

Many people want to do their own medical research online, and they should. Having quality information about any health condition should be a right, not a privilege. But while the internet can be an amazing medical library, unfortunately only a few clicks stand between your being well-informed vs. your being completely misinformed by  inaccurate content.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the internet is a popularity contest, not a quality contest. Then there are influencers — or rather dis-influencers, and there are also people spreading bad content who are well meaning but simply wrong. And then there is bias and, of course, snake oil. And yes, snake oil is alluring.

We all want quick fixes, even doctors like me.

But getting quality medical information matters, because you will only be an empowered patient if you have accurate information. So how can you hope to navigate this quagmire?

By reading this post!

The below information will help you — whether you have a specific condition or treatment to research or you just want to have a solid background so you don’t get taken in by snake oil. And let’s face it: If you are going to be on spending any time online and on any social media platforms, the snake oil is flying fast and furious so you’re going to be exposed. Plus, snake oil can often be a gateway to something much more malignant.

Tip #1: Look for bias 

Many people ask about the influence of Big Pharma on doctors, and it is a reality. If a doctor or researcher is being paid by a company to promote a drug or an implant, that can affect their opinion of it as well as their prescribing practices.

And this extends to all medical products. If someone is selling you a product or profits from that sale, they can’t be trusted to give you reliable information about not only that product but also that medical condition. It’s really as simple as that.

Goop is a prime example — their content exists to make a sale. They aren’t hiding this; after all, they invite you to “shop the story”. But simply put, science and stores don’t mix.

You can look up what doctors have been paid by different pharmaceutical companies in ProPublica’s Dollars for Doctors, but you can’t look up naturopaths, nurses, physical therapists, physician assistants, chiropractors or anyone else. There is also no “Dollars for Supplements or Other Junk” website, so there is no way to know who is getting money from the supplement industry, the feminine hygiene industry, the home-testing market or any other medical or medical-adjacent product.

Another concerning bias is government lobbying. The manufacturers of vitamins have funded lobbying for naturopaths to become licensed in certain states. Naturopaths commonly recommend vitamins and supplements, so this is a clear conflict of interest. Think of it this way: If the maker of an antidepressant lobbied to get the scope of prescribing for antidepressants expanded so that pharmacists could prescribe them, there would be an uproar.

Other examples of bias that should be on your radar include the following:

    • Websites with stores. Goop is an example, but many doctors, naturopaths and other providers sell products on their site. If you see a store, just close the tab.
    • Articles which include the disclaimer that the magazine/website may make money from products purchased through links in the article. These articles are typically glorified ads, and all of the “experts” quoted support these products. Shocker! And were the experts picked because they were recommended by the company who pitched the story to the magazine/website? In addition, many articles in magazines/websites that feature products are the result of pitches, meaning a company pitched the product and the publication decided it was a story. This almost always results in glowing reviews. Shopping the story might be fine if you’re looking for, say, cosmetics, but it’s a potential minefield of bias for medicine. Just give these posts a pass.
    • Branded supplements. Some medical providers have launched their own bespoke supplements, so they are clearly making money from them. One example is Jolene Brighten, a naturopath. She has Brighten Brand supplements for a wide range of issues, from prenatal vitamins and balancing hormones to thyroid conditions and gastrointestinal health and more. This eliminates her as an unbiased source on almost every topic pertaining to women’s health.
    • Influencers. One product that’s been pushed a lot recently is boric acid, but past trends have been hair gummies, weight loss teas and a hodgepodge of shakes. The influencers tell you how “great” the product is, but they are paid to do so. They really believe in it .. .for a price. What this means is you, the consumer, have to be on the lookout for yourself.

Tip #2: Google better

When you are researching a medical condition, should you just put what you are looking for in the search bar and click “return”? No.

As a medical expert, I can go to academic sites like PubMed and pull up articles, but those won’t be helpful for people who don’t have at least some level of medical training. The articles are complex and written with an assumption that the reader is a medical professional or scientist. In addition, studies can be challenging to interpret and you cannot just read the conclusion in the abstract. Whenever I read a new study just for my own education, I typically have to read it two or three times to really understand it. Sometimes I even look up what other experts have written about it.

When I am writing about a new study for my newsletter, I do all of that but I also cross-reference it with other articles, look at other work by the same authors, and double-check against expert opinions. Sometimes I email one or two experts to get their take to see if I am missing something. Plus, before I even start, I’ve checked to make sure the article is in a reputable journal.

Most laypeople who are looking up health information start with Google, but the problem here is that you are at the mercy of what is popular. In addition, many people who sell alternative medicine and pharmaceuticals are savvy about search engine optimization, so articles and sites supporting their products rise to the top. This means your top three hits on a Google search are not a reflection of what is medically accurate and/or valuable. Do you want to know why the person who made a useless $100 vulva serum or the company with an untested $400 vaginal toning “laser” send countless pitch emails to a myriad of outlets? Because these may lead to a mention in an article, like the kind described in tip #1,  which gives Google a legitimate result that isn’t from the company itself and improves its standing on Google.

There is one simple trick for using Google so it can be a better medical search engine: Do this by adding the name of a medical professional society to your search term. Instead of just typing “COVID-19 vaccine safety” and hitting return, type “COVID-19 vaccine safety AAFP” — the American Academy of Family Physicians is the medical professional society. That way anything written by that society or that references the society will percolate to the top of your search. Family medicine covers almost everything in medicine, so the AAFP is a great one to remember.

The advantage of medical professional societies is they have vetted their content, it is almost always created by several accredited experts, and bias — in the form of ties to Big Pharma — must be disclosed.

Other medical professional societies to use include the following (but by no means is this an exhaustive list and yes, because I live and work in the US, it focuses largely on US professional societies):

ACOG: American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
ASRM: American Society of Reproductive Medicine
SMFM: Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine
AAP: American Academy of Pediatricians
ACP: American College of Physicians
IDSA: Infectious Diseases Society of America
ACMG: American College Medical Genetics and Genomics
NAMS: North American Menopause Society

If you have a specific medical condition that you’re often researching, ask your doctor which medical professional society will have the most information for those health concerns so you can use its name when you google.

Tip #3: Find out if your source is a qualified medical expert

Do you want the woman who does your lash extensions or the guy who owns the local gym — two real life examples of people who presented me with their expertise to tell me why I didn’t know what I was talking about — to interpret the latest study on COVID variants? Or would you prefer a board-certified expert in infectious diseases, a virologist  or maybe even both? In general, if a non-expert is holding forth about a medical subject, it’s best to pass on their input.

What about personal experience? While it is true that many people who are patients can be a source of good information about medical conditions, not all of them are. You also don’t know if the patient sharing information about their health received good care and good advice, or not. In addition, some patient groups have ties to Pharma or other sources of funding that might be a conflict of interest.

I’ve seen people who received amazing information from online patient groups or from other people who they have interacted with online, but I’ve also seen people who received very harmful advice. So this is an area where you should proceed with caution, and use the other tips here to cross-check for accuracy. The personal experience of others is likely most useful to you once you have a solid grounding in the medical condition or concern.

Also, personal experience represents a single data point — it could be medically true but it could also be an anomaly or a spurious finding. And while anecdotes can sometimes  add up to something, without a controlled study we just can’t be sure that is the case. The human body is wonderful and amazing, but it is also complex which is why clinical trials with control groups are necessary.

Tip #4: Personal testimonials are not scientifically valid

Sites that feature personal stories should be ignored. If you are making decisions about your health, you want real studies that are well designed.  For every story you hear in favor of some wild new cure, there might be 100 stories where someone tried that same cure and it didn’t work; it’s just that the manufacturer of the product isn’t amplifying those negative experiences. Plus, you have no way to verify the claims. That is what actual medical research is for.

If the page you land on starts with testimonials, ignore it and move on. This is a huge issue on Instagram and TikTok as influencers are often being paid for personal anecdotes and while these influencers are experts in making sales, they are definitely not experts on health.

Tip #5: Check to see if products and manufacturers have been flagged by the authorities

Many manufacturers and physicians have received warning letters from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or had actions taken against them by the FDA. (Some examples are Dr. Joseph Mercola, testosterone pellets and Dr. Charles Runnels.) If you have a bad reaction to a product, you can also report it to the FDA here and the FDA will launch an investigation if it gets enough reports on a product.

Tip #6: Make a plan and start right 

I suspect many people spend more time planning dinner or writing a grocery list than they spend planning their health research. Getting quality information matters, even more so at the start of your search because the first thing you read is likely to have the biggest impact. If it’s wrong, it could set you on a wrong and potentially dangerous path. Also, this is your health! It matters.

Take some time to plan your search strategy. What questions do you want answered? Write them down! Which medical professional societies are likely to have good information? If you are unsure, ask your provider what medical association covers the area that interests you and use your new google med skills (see tip #2) to start there.

Another strategy is to ask your doctor if they use a professional education platform for doctors and medical professionals called UpToDate. If they do, ask them for the patient handout that is appropriate for your health concern(s). Ask for the basic and advanced handouts (sometimes there are two). If they’re available, this — plus a handout from a medical professional society — should be the first two things you read for most health conditions.

As you research, cross-reference these tips. There are always exceptions, so it’s wise to consider everything. For example, a doctor may be an accredited medical professional  but if they sell supplements, they have bias that puts their judgement into question. And if they are into conspiracy theories, they are ignorant and should be ignored.

The medical internet should belong to everyone, and with these rules hopefully you can make it work better for you. Happy researching!

This post was adapted from one published in Dr. Jen’s newsletter “The Vajenda”, and you can read six additional tips in the original version. To sign up for her newsletter, go here. And to learn more about the lies that people have been told — and sold — about human health, listen to her TED podcast Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter.