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How to find reliable health information

Elizabeth Jaggers, M.D., is a Piedmont internal medicine physician. In her Short Answer/Long Answer series, she tackles your medical questions.  

Short answer:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it claims to treat or cure everything, then it probably actually cures nothing. If financial gain is involved, keep a skeptical eye.

Long Answer:

Educating yourself about your own body and health can be incredibly empowering, but not all learning resources are created the same. We live in a time where almost anyone can have a blog, website, podcast, or other public platform. This can be a creative outlet, a chance for information sharing, and community building for some, but it also can contribute to misinformation and muddying of the “health and wellness” waters.

We can all agree that a thoroughly researched review article that is edited and drafted by a panel of experts and published in the New England Journal of Medicine is just not the same as your cousin’s barber’s “health blog” on how your astrological sign should guide your diet.

Fraudulent health claims, practitioners, and products are not harmless and often target people who feel desperate, are elderly, or are chronically ill. The best-case scenario is that someone has a positive placebo effect from a sugar pill or vial of water. The worst-case scenarios are much more frightening. In addition to wasting money and preying on people’s emotions, false medical resources can delay appropriate and vital healthcare.

To be clear, there is absolutely a time and a place for complementary and integrative medical options, but that is not what this discussion is about. We are going to review some good resources, bad resources, and how to tell the difference between the two when it comes to educating yourself.

Resources you can trust

Resources to be wary of

  • Just anyone in scrubs. People who work in healthcare are trained in various fields of study with expertise in that field. These health professionals are often asked questions beyond their scope of practice. Some information they pass along may be based on experiences or anecdotes rather than standards of care.
  • Televised medical talk shows. Recommendations made on medical talk shows often lack adequate information on specific benefits or the magnitude of the effects of these benefits. Potential conflicts of interest are rarely addressed.  
  • Social media. Medical practices and medical journals are getting involved in relaying information via social media. Make sure the social media source is a reputable medical entity.
  • Advertisements. These are everywhere! Some may be for legitimate products, but you must keep in mind that the primary goal of those ads is to sell a product.

Some other key points to remember

  • The word "natural" is essentially meaningless. Other phrases to be wary of include “miracle cure,” “ancient remedy,” “breakthrough,” “belly fat,” and “secret that doctors/big pharma/the government don't want you to know.”
  • If the grammar, wording, or ratio of exclamation points/emoticons reads more like a text than an article, read no further.
  • Remember that personal anecdotes are NOT the same as scientific evidence.
  •  If a product or website has an association with a celebrity, entertainer, or radio show, then think long and hard about what you hear, read or, purchase. 

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