Practicing evidence-based medicine is essential to delivering good medicine. Evidence-based medicine refers to making medical decisions by utilizing well-constructed research studies to support the science it promotes. Health professionals make recommendations to patients based upon research and evidence, typically from peer reviewed sources, rather than convenience, anecdotes or worse yet, ulterior motivations including financial gain or media attention. The internet is a ripe source of false information, unfortunately from both lay persons and physicians.
When talking about food and health, it is easy to fabricate and perpetuate claims which are unproven and untested but offer alluring promise. Although authoring a blog is not equivalent to practicing medicine, I do write about subjects which are supported by reproducible data published in reliable medical journals and studies. This concept is essential in science, and the line may become blurred when a physician takes on the role of entertainer or a non-scientist poses as a health care professional or medical advisor. Dr Oz’s weight loss claims or Jenny McCarthy’s attempt of being a vaccine expert are recent examples.
It is easy to spread untrue information online, since there are few checks and balances to scrutinize authenticity, and there is minimal barrier to entry in posting online claims. Anyone can start a website and post information. Be aware of misleading or unbelievable claims which seem too good to be true and organizations that self-publish and promote their own research.
Here are some key questions to consider when evaluating medical advice from online sources:
1. Who manages and pays for the web site? The source of funding may represent a conflict of interest with the purpose of the information, if they are co-mingled. Be sure to check if any products are services offered are tied to facts and other reputable sources beyond the blog author.
2. What is the original source of information? Evidence-based research should cite sources and link research articles in a transparent way. If the website is presenting its own research, this may be a red flag. Additionally, if there are no sources from where the information was collected, this is a red flag as well.
3. Does the web site produce its own data and claims? Look for research that originates from published articles in well-known peer-reviewed medical journals coming from well-known research centers. If the research is self-published by the organization promoting it, this is a red flag. Look for bias that can skew the information.
4. Who reviewed the information posted on the website? Health information should be presented by people with medical and scientific credentials.
5. Is the information presented an opinion or is it factual? Look for specific clues to validate its credibility.
For more information regarding evaluating internet health information, refer to this link posted by the National Institutes of Health. In the next blog, I will discuss some current and common internet health claims which are lacking support through carefully constructed research.
- Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group (November 1992). “Evidence-based medicine. A new approach to teaching the practice of medicine”. JAMA 268 (17): 2420–5.doi:10.1001/jama.268.17.2420. PMID 1404801.