Recently the New York Times ran an editorial lamenting the widespread misinformation appearing on the internet. They stated that each week another platform was in trouble for allowing misinformation to appear. Among other false and dubious health claims featured on his popular, Spotify-hosted podcast, Joe Rogan suggested falsely that the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines are a type of “gene therapy” and that young people are at a greater risk from the shots than the disease. This triggered calls to remove his podcast from the internet. But the Times editorial stated that this example was just a tiny drop in the ocean of online health nonsense. That’s quite right, but what can we do about it? I present below a few thoughts:
IT BEGINS WITH CONSUMER SKEPTICISM
If you are not already adept at critical thinking, I would suggest consulting my book, “Snake Oil is Alive and Well”, wherein I describe many ways to be skeptical that include sources of common judgmental errors. Examples of these include understanding numerical odds, generalizing from insufficient numbers, post hoc fallacies, regression to the mean, importance of the “placebo effect,” and many others.
WHERE CAN ACCURATE INFORMATION BE FOUND ON THE INTERNET?
Since so much false health information appears on the internet, where should we look for accuracy? Although I attempt to regularly provide accurate information on this site, more comprehensive sites are available, and the good news is that there are reliable information sources on the web — if you’re visiting the right sites. Here are some tips:
- Start with a reliable provider.
- Evaluate commercial websites carefully for bias and conflict of interest.
- Check to see if the information is current, preferably less than three years old.
- Identify the credentials of the author, such as a patient, doctor, nurse, or patient advocate.
Here are a few online resources for medical information that everyone can trust:
OVERALL HEALTH INFORMATION
MedlinePlus is operated by the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine. This website is a reliable source of scientifically based, peer-reviewed health information. There are no advertisements because it is already paid for by tax dollars. All the information is written by healthcare professionals (MDs, PhDs, RNs, etc.). If you had one place to go for information, this should be it. In general, other universities also have websites that supply good information, and although too numerous to list, the websites “Science Based Medicine” and “WebMD” are accurate sources.
By contrast, a great place to find misleading and false information is “Quackwatch,” which provides an extensive list of quacks, charlatans, and bad websites, all of which should be avoided (except for laughs)! It makes for interesting reading, which sometimes exposes certain TV personalities as outright quacks!
Daily Med is also operated by the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine, making it very reliable and ad-free. Information is sourced directly from the Food and Drug Administration.
MEDICAL PROCEDURES AND ISSUES
The Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins are arguably two of the world’s leading institutions of medicine and science. Both are consistently ranked among the best medical providers in the country, and both conduct extensive medical and scientific research which keeps them at the forefront of innovation. They may be slightly more complicated to navigate than MedlinePlus or Daily Med, but quite accurate. However, they make up for this by having extensive information on medical procedures. You can search for tests and surgeries and get a lot of reliable info. Both the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins are technically not-for-profit medical services, as are many university sites such as Tufts and Harvard Universities and other such well-respected institutions.
The NIH Office of Dietary Supplements might be hard to remember, but it makes up for it with extensive information. It provides scientifically verified information on vitamins and supplements that can’t be found anywhere else. One great feature offered by the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements is direct citations to the peer-reviewed articles. That makes it easier for patients to look deeper into the medical research. Although it’s useful in providing information about vitamins and minerals, it fails to enlighten the consumer about all the “supplements,” such as the many herbal products that stock the shelves of pharmacies and “health food” stores, most of which are, at best, useless, or, at worst, downright dangerous! To make a long story short, stay away from all these products, at least until you encounter a reliable, qualified originating source of information. I attempt to explain this subject in detail in my other book: “Health Tips, Myths, and Tricks,” in which I have no conflicts of interest, other than selling books!
WHAT ABOUT THE INTERNET PLATFORMS SUCH AS FACEBOOK?
This is a murky area that often escapes with first amendment protection, i.e., freedom of expression. Although internet sponsors such as Facebook should attempt to prevent the appearance of obviously dangerous information or products, this is no easy task that extends also to various TV and news outlets. One example of the latter is the recent touting on Fox News of ineffective—possibly dangerous—products, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, for treatment of COVID-19.
The best defense against such misinformation is for the consumer to arm him/herself with healthy skepticism abetted by reliable sources of information cited above!
ONE MAJOR FINAL CAVEAT
Do not try to perform self-diagnosis of any real or imaginary maladies from the internet. At the very least, begin by consulting with a good licensed medical practitioner!