Sep 2, 2009

Health Info Online (That Isn't BS)

A question from a reader:

I’d like to know where I can go for trustworthy information on a diagnosis when I haven’t got an appointment in the near future.
Fortunately we live in the Information Age and you are sitting in front of a computer right now with an ocean of information at your fingertips. The “trustworthy” part is what poses a problem.

There is some crazy “medical” information on the web. Some suggestions are obvious quackery, such as saying that goji juice cures every illness known to man. Some erroneous advice may not be as obvious. There is a lot of money in healthcare, and you don't need any scientific evidence to get access to the big dollars—just ask a chiropractor! There are also a lot of well-meaning people who want to share advice that may or may not really work, like your grandma who was sure that a teaspoon of castor oil would cure anything.

You can start with asking your doctor. A specialist may have a specific site they recommend for your condition. For general information Doctor D typically sends his patients in the direction of and UpToDate for Patients.

Tips for sorting through the medical information on the Internet:
  • Print out what you find and take it to your doctor who can often tell you if it is reputable. Doctor D has researched some very interesting topics because his patients brought them in.
  • If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. The more conditions a treatment supposedly fixes the more likely it actually works for nothing at all. This is particularly true of nutritional supplements and “natural” medicines, whose claims are almost totally unregulated.
  • Remember that every individual is different. Patient forums can be an excellent way to connect with others in the same situation as you, but the experience of someone else with your condition cannot always be applied directly to you.
  • Remember the placebo effect is powerful. Unproven treatments often appear to “work” due to the placebo effect combined with the body's natural ability to heal itself. If a treatment has never been tested against a placebo it is hard to say if it really works or not.
  • Consider the source of your information. Who is it and what is their motivation for giving you this info? Big pharmaceutical companies often create “educational sites” whose purpose is to interest you in their drug. Any very nicely-designed site that reminds you to "Ask your doctor about ___" probably stands to make money off what your doctor might prescribe.
  • Keep in mind that big news/entertainment names are selling drama which often isn't the same as trustworthy medical information. Don't trust everything you hear from Oprah!
  • Never take advice from anonymous sources! I mean, what sort of doctor would blog without using his real name? (Just joking. But this is one reason Doctor D doesn't give treatment or diagnosis advice on this blog!)


Doctor D said...

Doctor D's wife, whose family goes to chiropractors, has asked Doctor D to clarify his point on chiropractors.

Doctor D would like to clarify that chiropractors can help with back pain, but that stuff about subluxations being the cause of cancer and runny noses is speculation without a shred of evidence.

WarmSocks said...

I hadn't heard about the Up To Date site. Cool!

queenofoptimism said...

Up to Date is new to me, too. I appreciate your comments about chiropractics. Many people I know go to a chiropractor for multiple symptoms.

Helen said...

Thanks for this. I hadn't heard of the "Up to Date" site either -- it looks really useful.

I often find I leave the doctor's office with more questions than I came with, and I like to be armed with at least a minimum of information before the next appointment. This will be very helpful.

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