You have probably heard the expression “Dr. Google” from a friend or family member or used it yourself in reference to searching Google to find medical information about a health condition or treatment. The internet provides consumers with unending access to information on any subject by typing a few key words into a search box. People can easily find accurate and evidence-based information that allows them to become more informed when making personal choices about their health and health care.
However, the internet, and especially social media, also allows for the wide-spread and rapid dissemination of information regardless of its accuracy or the evidence behind the information provided. A 2018 study1 looked at 126,000 true and false stories on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. These stories were retweeted more than 4.5 million times and the false stories spread significantly further and faster than the truth.1
So how do you know what is accurate and what isn’t?
What is fake health news?
One term used to describe health news that is less than factual is pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is “a system of thought or a theory that is not formed in a scientific way.”2 In other words, there is little or no scientific research and evidence to support the claims being made. Often these claims are misleading and inaccurate and have the goal of selling you something or promoting health myths that abound in society. The claims may be promoted by celebrities or companies who make or market a product.3 Examples of these type of stories are claims by celebrities that support a fad diet or extreme exercise program, or the claim by many cosmetic manufactures that their face cream is the fountain of youth.
How do you tell the difference?
Using multiple sources to gather information about your health is a very good idea and will help you collaborate with your health-care team in making decisions about your health and the health-care options open to you. The internet is a great place to start. However, it is important to recognize the difference between factual, reliable information and questionable or even false content.
You will need to do a little bit of detective work to find health information you can trust and rely on.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Who owns and funds the website? A website’s source of funding can affect the content, how it presents that content, and what the owner wants to accomplish on the site.4 Look for sites of well-known medical schools, professional health organizations, or government agencies. It should be easy to identify who owns and manages the content on the site.4
What is the site’s purpose? Look for a link to information about the site or the organization that maintains the website, often found under “About”. The site should clearly state the purpose for which it was created and/or the mandate of the organization that owns it. It is important to keep in mind that the website owner’s desire to promote a product or service can influence the accuracy and bias of the health information/claims they present.4 Look for another source that is different, independent and unbiased to verify the accuracy of that claim.4
Who wrote and/or edited the content? Are the authors scientists, health-care providers, bloggers, “lay people,” manufactures, producers, or retailers? You should have access to their credentials and information on how to contact them for more information or to clarify what is written.
Look for information about “disclosures” as well. When scientists have a financial intertest in a product, it is an accepted standard that they disclose their interests. This doesn’t mean that the information they have provided is false, just that it should be read with a bit more suspicion/caution. If all the science published on a topic comes from the same group of people that’s also a red flag to read the information with a bit more suspicion. It is worth taking a little extra time to confirm the author(s) are reliable and credible, and to find out if anyone else had been able to duplicate their findings.
Is the intention of the title to inform, convince, or impress?4
Does the title (or the content for that matter) lean to one extreme? That is, does it make grandiose claims that sound either very worrisome or too good to be true, such as a promise to “cure,” or provide an immediate and complete fix of all cancers or all illness?4
Is the content related to the title, is it what you expected, or does it suddenly go a different direction?4
Is it current? Medical science is rapidly changing. The most credible information will summarize recently published information. Anything more than 10 years old is typically considered out of date. The older the information, the more caution you should use when reading it. The dates of the information, the sources referenced or article itself should be easily identified.
Is the content supported by strong evidence? Does the article/site include a list of sources to support the position or opinion being promoted or are claims based on patient testimonials?5 Look for scientific references and studies not anecdotal reports.5
Is the content based on the author’s research or does it rely on references to the work of other individuals? If referring to other sources, are they identified and referenced?
Does the content rely on “factoids” or small bits of partially truthful claims/information that is taken out of context or presented on its own with no supporting evidence? Misleading or fake news articles often use current buzzwords to get your attention and make the article sound more reliable.
How well is the article written? Research and information from professional, educational or government agencies will have been written and re-written several times before being published. If there are many spelling, grammatical or sentence structure issues, be suspicious.
Does the article or website ask for personal information, want your credit card information or want you to link to another site? NEVER provide personal or financial information without confirming the security of the site. Look for sites with “https” in the web address to indicate a secure server.5
What to do with the information you have gathered?
Doing your homework before you attend an appointment with your physiotherapist or other health-care provider is a great plan and allows you to be proactive and prepared to ask informed questions. However, the information you find online, even from reliable, evidence-based sources, can never replace a face-to-face discussion. You and your circumstances are unique. Talk to your health-care provider about what you have read, how it relates to your specific situation, and your treatment options. If you have found articles you feel are relevant or you have questions about, bring them with you.
Health-care professionals work hard to stay current and up-to-date with what the evidence says about different treatments; however, the rate of publication of new information is high. It is not possible to be familiar with everything printed, published or online. By sharing information you’ve found and discussing the evidence you can have informed, transparent, honest conversations about the treatment decisions that are right for you or your family members.
If you have questions about what you found online or if your search left you with more questions than answers, speak to a health-care professional. Physiotherapists are highly skilled and educated health-care providers who can help answer our questions. To find a physiotherapist near you, click here.
Vosoughi S, Roy D and Aral S (2018) The spread of true and false news online. Science 359, 1146–1151.
Cambridge Dictionary (2019) The meaning of pseudo science in English. Available at https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pseudo-science Accessed April 16, 2019.
Macnab, A (2019) Debunking pseudo-science. Available at https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/author/aidan-macnab/debunking-pseudo-science-16943/#tab_1 Accessed April 16, 2019.
National Institutes of Health (2011) How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers. Available at https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/How_To_Evaluate_Health_Information_on_the_Internet_Questions_and_Answers.aspx Accessed April 16, 2019.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus: Online health information – what can you trust? Available at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000869.htm Accessed April 16, 2019.
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