USA Today reported on Monday that increasing numbers of Americans are turning to internet discussion forums and Google searches for medical advice before they consult their doctors.
It's definitely good to see that more people are utilizing the internet to learn about health and science. The problem, however, is that Google search results return as much junk science as they do reliable advice.
Anybody with an opinion and an internet connection can put up a website or post to an anonymous discussion forum. So to ensure that Google searches don't harm your health, here are a few rules to follow when browsing the internet for medical advice.
1. Go directly to the experts.
The internet has enabled the wackiest among us to perpetuate conspiracy theories and misinformation about health and medicine. But it has also allowed scientists and doctors to write directly for the public, and many of them are. Blogs and websites which feature expert commentary are easily accessed if you know how to find them. The value of such information sources cannot be understated. Compared to oblivious super models and television personalities, experts are obviously more capable of evaluating the latest research that shows up in Google news and explaining the benefits and risks of different medical treatments.
Furthermore, getting information from these sites gives you an opportunity not just to read what experts have to say, but interact with them as well. No longer do you have to schedule an appointment with your doctor or study science at a university to do so; you can converse with researchers in comment threads on their articles or even send them an email. For these reasons, an expert blog is way more informative than the science page at CNN or The Huffington Post.
2. Check for sources.
Health claims pop up all over the internet and most of them baseless. Last week's exaggerated media coverage of so-called pink slime being served in school lunches is a perfect example. Many of the stories about pink slime cited other news stories or celebrity chefs as sources about the dangers of eating lean finely textured beef. Rare was the report that cited any relevant research. This is generally a problem with science and health reporting (and all bogus health/science websites), so check if the article or blog post you're reading cites any reliable sources, peer-reviewed studies, or books written by experts. If not, then chances are the information is junk and you'd be better served by visiting another website.
3. Don't believe people who say "the man" is trying to silence them.
Ask a creationist (a person who says the earth is 6,000 years old), climate change denier, or anti-vaccine advocate why his ideas don't make headway in intellectual circles, and you'll get the same answer every time: The "establishment" has it in for him. As Dr. Robert Park points out, people who claim that their ideas are suppressed by the government or by other scientists are usually peddlers of junk science. There's no doubt that people with contrarian views face heightened scrutiny from scientists, and sometimes people who challenge the consensus are right. But that's usually not the case. Most alternative theories about health or medicine are unfounded, thus they are dismissed by most experts.
4. Educate yourself.
Relying on experts is generally a good idea. However, if you don't understand what they are saying, then they can't be of much help. And sometimes reputable scientists disagree over how to treat a disease or whether or not a food or drug is harmful. As a result, educating yourself is essential. Invest in a few books that will help you learn how to read academic research. There are also entire websites dedicated to evaluating internet health claims, and teaching consumers how to do it as well. These are all resources that can help you determine whether the information you come across online is reliable.
Our lives are undoubtedly better because of all the content we can access with a couple of keystrokes and a mouse click. But it's also easy to misuse the internet and to be fooled by people who misuse it. As you search, makes sure you don't fall into the latter category.
Photo Credit: Robert Couse-Baker