When new symptoms arrive, fatigue or rapid heartbeat, I may research it online. It feels empowering. Could it be COVID-19? Taking the time to learn about my health, or lack of, is a good thing. But not all sources are equal, and the internet is more of a popularity than a quality contest.
Internet content is often designed primarily to attract attention. Websites cast out mind-grabbing headlines known as Clickbate to reel in visitors. When Instagram people get enough followers, they become known as Influencers. High-traffic websites get more money for their site’s ads. But Influencer does not imply well-informed. And Web content may be alluring, but it can be harmful.
How do we navigate this quagmire we call the internet? Here are a few pointers to help sort the junk from evidence.
Google better. When you put “COVID-19 vaccine safety” in the search bar, you get over 700 million hits. Thirty minutes later, you are convinced your days are numbered, and you are calling your son to say goodbye. Narrow your search by including medical professional groups. “COVID-19 vaccine safety AAFP” (the American Academy of Family Physicians) narrows the search to 54 thousand hits. Information from the AAFP will rise to the top. Family medicine covers mostly everything in medicine. The advantage of going to a professional society is that accredited experts usually vet the content and reveal possible biases such as a connection with Big Pharma. If you have a specific medical condition, ask your doctor which medical society has the most relevant information. In this way, you can eliminate irrelevant and harmful misinformation.
Look for bias. Put on your “skeptic hat” when a company pays doctors or researchers to prescribe or promote. Who sponsored the research? You can look up your doctors to see if pharmaceutical companies have paid them. There is no seemingly reliable way to check many other health providers (chiropractors, physical therapists, etc.) to see if they get money from the unregulated supplement industries.
Skip medical persons with websites that sell products via glorified ads. If a medical website has a store tab, go somewhere else. Science and stores don’t mix. Articles in magazines or on websites with disclaimers, “We may make money from products purchased through links in the article,” makes them a biased source. Influencers are paid to tell you that the $45 tube of facial cream is the best thing that ever happened to them. Be skeptical of personal testimonies.
Is your source a qualified expert? Non-experts espousing opinions on medical subjects are best ignored. Too much information from the wrong sources is more likely to hurt than help. Learning about long COVID symptoms should come from a board-certified infectious disease specialist, a virologist, or both.
How is your medication affecting other people? The FDA sends letters to manufacturers and physicians if enough people report reactions to products. Check to see if your meds are flagged. For example, the FDA sent a “Warning Letter” to Dr. Joseph M. Mercola, “Unapproved and Misbranded Products Related to Coronavirus Disease 2019” (COVID-19).
And when all is said and done, remember, there are always exceptions. But, if your doctor sells supplements without credible research as evidence of the benefits, and approval from the FDA, be skeptical. And if they are into conspiracy theories, ignore them.
Sources for Health Information:
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
Ted Talk, Dr. Jen Gunther https://ideas.ted.com/6-tips-for-finding-accurate-health-info-online-health-research/
How Consumers Can Report an Adverse Event or Serious Problem to FDA https://www.fda.gov/safety/reporting-serious-problems-fda/how-consumers-can-report-adverse-event-or-serious-problem-fda
Is your doctor receiving money from pharmaceutical companies? https://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/