5 tips for researching health advice online

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Many look to the internet when experiencing health symptoms, receiving a new diagnosis or looking for medical advice. Becoming your own health advocate includes educating yourself about your condition and treatment options. But with so many people self-diagnosing and the sheer amount of information out there, how do you tell between good and bad medical advice?

1. Researchers beware: Quality medical information matters

There's a massive amount of medical information online, so it's important to remember one thing: it's not all quality material. While the internet has a lot to offer, it's also full of inaccurate, unhelpful content and amateur advice. Some medical information is properly researched, data driven and unbiased, but there are also those out to sell a quick fix or promote products that may be dangerous.

"Most of us have used the internet to search symptoms –I do it too," says Briahna Carlson, APRN-NP, at Chalco Health Center. "However, I have the training to help me distinguish between both good and bad information online. Many of the classes we take to become medical professionals teach us how to interpret medical research and distinguish if a study is biased. If you have a new symptom or a chronic condition that is worsening, first seek the advice of your provider." 

2. Look for trusted, unbiased sources

Does the content exist mainly to make a sale? Is there a conflict of interest? Are they getting a financial kickback? If what you're reading is primarily a pitch or sounds like a miracle cure, move on.

When you search online, keep in mind that results can be driven by a wide variety of factors, including the algorithms of your search engine, your location, what's currently popular and content disguised as an advertisement, to name a few.

 "Unfortunately, the internet is both beneficial and detrimental when searching a diagnosis, medication or treatment option," says Carlson. "Many websites are biased, commercially advertised for capital gain and based on studies with small sample sizes. Watch out for articles that either don't cite sources or cite sources with a known bias or motive."

3. Start with professional medical societies

There are many excellent academic sites and journals medical experts use, but they can be complex and hard to interpret without the proper training. For easy-to-read articles information, start by typing in your search term with the name of a medical professional society. This way, you'll get more reliable sources at the top of your search. 

"Ask your doctor for specific medical websites they would suggest for learning more about your condition or diagnosis," Carlson advises. "The internet is full of information, and a broad search is bound to be overwhelming." 

Here are a few medical society examples to get you started:

Don't forget about searching your local hospital or medical center articles online. They often offer sound medical advice about symptoms, medical conditions, treatment options and more on their website. You can go to NebraskaMedicine.com for a wide array of medical advice.

4. Be cautious about personal stories, social comments and conspiracy theories

People online can be helpful at times, but even seemingly innocent comments should be suspect. Personal testimonials are just that – one person's experience. While their story may ring true, there's no way to verify claims, scientific studies or validity to back their story or opinion.

Along the same lines, conspiracy theorists often recommend untested solutions not backed by scientific medical research and surprise, include something to be gained financially. If you follow the links, you'll most likely see some sketchy stuff.

Resist the urge to follow the rabbit hole of hidden secrets and miracle cures, "Ask your doctor if there is a new product you are interested in trying," adds Carlson. "They should be able to tell you if this is an experimental option, commercially biased or based on peer-reviewed research." 

What about alternative medicine claims?
Proceed with caution and look for red flags. Alternative medicine can be helpful or harmful when used in tandem with medical treatment. "I personally prescribe peer-reviewed treatment options and explore what alternative treatments would be helpful for our end goal of treatment," explains Carlson. "We also discuss what alternative treatments would be harmful or detrimental. Many herbs interact poorly with prescription medications. It is very important to ask your doctor before seeking out an alternative treatment option." 

5. Think about a medical research strategy before you start surfing

Have you asked your doctor for recommendations? What questions do you still have? Which medical sources would be a good match to answer those questions? Write these things down before you head to the internet. 

Most insurance companies cover annual visits and with the option of virtual appointments, it's always a good time to ask questions of your doctor. "Nebraska Medicine also has a financial resource team for those with limited funds. We are open to questions and went into this profession to help," says Carlson. "We meet with specialists monthly to discuss their niche, new techniques, procedures and advances in medicine." 

The internet can be a good source of information when combined with a solid research approach, but it's not a good substitution for your doctor's expert advice and care. Have a concern? Make an appointment by calling 800.922.0000.