In my young career as a primary care physician, not a week goes by without patients giving me some rendition of: “I did the thing I shouldn’t do and Googled my symptoms,” or: “I read a blog that this drug can cause [some really rare side effect].” On the other hand, I’ve also been pleased to talk with informed patients who come to me saying: “I looked up this symptom online and thought I might have this diagnosis, but I wanted to come in to talk about it,” or: “I read about this food poisoning outbreak. Should I be concerned about it?”

The act of seeking out consumer health information is a natural byproduct of the abundance of information accessible on the Internet. However, the quality of information matters, especially when it comes to health and medicine. Researchers from many disciplines have conducted studies to understand who, what, and why health information is sought on the Internet, and how this affects patient-physician interaction. (A quick search on Pubmed—the National Institute of Health’s go-to repository for published biomedical literature, and a frequently accessed resource for medical professionals and researchers—reveals hundreds of titles on the topic.) What’s missing is guidance on how to empower patients with the basic skills needed to interpret the information found.

Being able to quickly assess the quality of health information we read is essential. In medical education, there’s a sacredness to being able to critically evaluate evidence produced from medical research; the burden is on the authors of any publication to perform scientifically sound research and interpret the results carefully. Similarly, the author of any Internet post or article should be held accountable for any health claims made.

In a handful of simple steps, I encourage patients or health information seekers of any kind to be critical—even a bit skeptical—when seeking health information on the Internet. To this end, these steps should serve as a starting point toward promoting learning and dialogue, as well as shared decision-making and engagement, between patients and their providers.

  1. Identify the source. Does the post or article you’re reading appear on a reputable site, or has it been published in a well-known journal or newspaper? Be critical of posts that don’t live on the websites of well-known healthcare institutions or organizations, non-profit organizations, or government programs (e.g. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health, or others).
  2. Read about the author. What training or experience does the author have related to the claims being made? Does the author disclose conflicts of interest? If not, be skeptical about the medical claims in the post. In a more radical example of disclosure, Leana Wen describes a “Total Transparency Manifesto” as a way to be open about who physicians in a potential position of authority are.
  3. Look up references. If the article summarizes medical publications, is a hyperlink to the original article provided? If the post asserts medical claims for diagnosis, treatment, or related statements, does it also provide references to support those claims? If not, the article is less reliable. If there are references, take some time to read or browse through them after you finish reading the main post. If the references are opinion pieces rather than published scientific literature, you should question claims made in the main post, too.
  4. Repeat steps one through three. For every new reference or article you access, think again about where the post came from, who wrote it, and how well-supported its claims are.
  5. Keep an open mind and talk with your doctor. You are empowered with all the potential knowledge of the Internet. Make sure to have a conversation with your doctor about what you learn. Ask questions for clarification, and even share the posts you read, so your doctor can work with you to help evaluate the validity of any questionable claims. Your doctor might thank you for sharing valuable information and appreciate the opportunity to learn from you and your discoveries. I know I do.

What are your tips and tricks on identifying sound health information online as a patient or physician?  Feel free to share with us in the comments section below!

Tiffany Leung

Author Tiffany Leung

Tiffany I. Leung, MD, MPH, FACP is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. She is also board certified in Clinical Informatics and has a particular interest in how technology can be used to ensure that patients have a better understanding of their health profile.

More posts by Tiffany Leung

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Poonam says:

    Nice article Tiffany!

    Whenever my mother calls me with a new “I think I have this [insert health problem]” I send her a youtube link related to the problem. This way I can start her off with basic education and visuals. Thanks to the abundance of videos on youtube, she can also poke around and learn more about the topic.

    After watching hours of educational videos or patient biographies, she usually comes to the conclusion, “oh, I guess I don’t have that issue.”

    Thank you to all those medical professionals that upload lectures, training material and patient cases on the net!

    • Sima Pendharkar Sima Pendharkar says:

      Yes, great point and thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

    • Tiffany Leung says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions Poonam! YouTube is a great way to educate, demonstrate, and engage with patients. As a simple example, I often pull up a video on how to perform Epley maneuvers for patients who I diagnose with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. It helps to have resources and systems that support this simple engagement. In these cases when I draw on internet resources, I’ll send the patient a secure message with relevant link(s) so that they can readily access resources I’ve personally curated to support the care plan we have agreed on.

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