Twelve Essential Tips for Researching Quality Health Information Online
Dr. Jen's guide to optimizing the Medical Internet
Many people want to do their own medical research online, and they should. Having quality information about any healthy condition should be a right, not a privilege. While the Internet can be an amazing medical library, unfortunately, it’s only a few clicks between being well-informed versus i DiD mY rEsEArcH aNd the vaCCiNe haS A mICRoChiP. One of the biggest reasons for this is the Internet is a popularity, not a quality contest. And then there are influencers, or rather dis-influencers. There are also people spreading bad content who are well-meaning, but simply wrong. And then there is bias and of course snake-oil. And yes, snake oil is alluring. We all want quick fixes, even doctors!
But getting quality medical information matters, because you can only be an empowered patient with accurate information. So what do you do? How can you hope to navigate this quagmire?
By following “Dr Jen’s Twelve Essential Tips for Researching Quality Health Information Online.” This information will help you whether you have a specific condition or treatment to research, or want to have a solid background so when surfing the Internet you don’t get trapped by snake oil. Because let’s face it, if you are going to be on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok the snake oil flies fast and furious so you are likely be exposed whether you are interested in adrenal-support shakes or not. And adrenal-support shakes can often be a gateway to something much more malignant.
Tip 1: Look For Bias
Many people ask about the influence of Big Pharma on doctors, and it is true. If you are being paid by a company to promote a drug or an implant, that can affect your opinion of it as well as your prescribing practices. This extends to all medical products. If someone is selling you a product or profits from that sale, they can’t be trusted to give you reliable information about not just that product, but that medical condition. It’s really as simple as that. Goop is a prime example. Their content exists to make the sale. They aren’t exactly hiding this, after all they invite you to “shop the story”. Simply put, science and stores don’t mix.
You can look up what doctors have been paid by different pharmaceutical companies in ProPublica’s Dollars for Doctors, but you can’t look up naturopaths, nurses, physical therapists, physician assistants, chiropractors, or anyone else. There is also no “Dollars for Supplements or Other Crap” website, so there is no way to know who is getting money from the supplement industry or from the feminine hygiene industry, the home testing market or any other medical or medical-adjacent product.
Another concerning bias is government lobbying. The manufacturers of vitamins have funded lobbying for naturopaths to get licensed in certain states. Naturopaths commonly recommend vitamins and supplements, so this is a clear conflict of interest. If the maker of an anti-depressant lobbied to get the scope of prescribing for antidepressants expanded so pharmacists could prescribe them, there would be an uproar.
Other examples of bias that should be on your radar include the following:
Websites with stores. Goop is a great example, but many doctors, naturopaths, and other medical providers sell products on their site. Dr. Mark Hyman is one example. In his "Farmacy (get it?) he sells his Pegan shake and something called “Gut Food” is coming soon. If there is a store, just close the browser.
Articles in magazines that include the disclaimer that the magazine/website may make money from products purchased through links in the article. These articles are typically glorified ads and all of the “experts” quoted support these products. Shocker! Were the experts picked because they were recommended by the company who pitched the story to the magazine, meaning there is undisclosed bias? In addition, many articles in magazines that feature products are the result of pitches, meaning a company pitched the product and the magazine decided it was a story. Hey, the pitch provided most of the copy. This almost always results in glowing reviews. Shopping the story might be fine for cosmetics, but it’s a potential minefield of bias for medicine, just give these posts a pass.
Branded supplements. Yes, some medical providers have their own bespoke supplements, so clearly they are making money from them. One example is Jolene Brighten, a naturopath. She has Brighten Brand supplements for a wide range of issues, from prenatal vitamins, to balancing hormones, to thyroid conditions and for gastrointestinal health and more. This eliminates her as an unbiased source on almost every topic pertaining to women’s health.
Influencers. One product that has been pushed a lot recently is boric acid, but past trends have been hair gummies, weight loss teas, and a hodge podge of shakes. The influencers tell you how “great” the product is, but they are paid to do so. They really “believe” in it...for a price. Read about vaginal boric acid profiteers here. Spoiler alert, it’s an antiseptic, not a pH balancer.
What this means is you, the consumer, have to be on the lookout for yourself.
Tip 2: Learn to Google Med
When you are researching a medical condition, should you just put what you are looking for in the search bar and click return? Nope. As a medical expert I can go to academic sites like PubMed and pull up articles, but that isn’t something that will be helpful for someone without at least some level of medical training. The articles are complex and written with an assumption the reader is a medical professional or scientist. In addition, studies can be challenging to interpret and you cannot just read the conclusion in the abstract! When I read a new study just for my own medical education I typically have to read it 2 or 3 times to really understand it. Sometimes I even look up what other experts have written about this article. When I am writing about a new study for The Vajenda, I do all that but also cross reference it with other articles, I look at other wok by the same authors, and double check against expert opinions. Sometimes I email one or two experts to get their take to see if I am missing something. I’ve also checked to make sure the article isn’t in a predatory journal before I even start.
Most people who are looking up health information start with Google, but the problem here is you are at the mercy of what is popular. In addition, many people who sell alternative medicine and pharmaceuticals are savvy about search engine optimization, so articles and sites supporting these products work the algorithms and rise to the top. Your top three hits on a Google search are not a reflection of what is accurate and/or valuable medically. Do you want to know why the person who made a $100 useless vulva serum or the company with an $400 untested vaginal toning “laser” sent countless pitch sheets to a myriad of outlets? One or two bites may lead to a mention in an article, like the kind described above in #1, and that gives Google a legitimate hit that isn’t from the company itself and this improves its standing on Google. Read more about search engine optimization and scammy medical products here.
There is one simple trick for using Google so it can be a better Google Med. Do this by adding the name of a medical professional society to your search term. So instead of “COVID-19 vaccine safety”, type “COVID-19 vaccine safety AAFP,” where the American Academy of Family Physicians is the medical professional society. That way anything written by that society or references that society will percolate to the top of your search. Family medicine covers almost everything in medicine, so the AAFP is a great one to remember.
The advantage of medical professional societies is they have vetted their content and it is almost always created by several experts and bias, meaning ties to Big Pharma, have to be disclosed.
Other medical professional societies to use include the following (but by no means is this an exhaustive list):
ACOG - American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
ASRM - American Society of Reproductive Medicine
SMFM - Society for Maternal Fetal Medicine
AAP - American Academy of Pediatricians
ACP - American College of Physicians
IDSA - Infectious Diseases Society of America
ACMG- American College Medical Genetics and Genomics
NAMS- North American Menopause Society
If you have a medical condition, ask your doctor what medical professional society will have the most information for your health concerns so you can use that when needed.
Tip 3. Is your Source Really a Medical Expert?
Do you want the woman who does your lash extensions or the guy who owns the local gym (two real life examples of people who presented me with their expertise to tell me why I didn’t know what I was talking about) to interpret the latest study on the Delta strain or would you prefer a board certified expert in infectious diseases, a virologist, or maybe even both?
Let me put it another way. Do you want a pilot with 20 years experience or an aeronautical engineer explaining aircraft safety, or someone who has flown in a plane and read about airplanes from conspiracy theorists? Maybe if they read about flying AND slept in a Holiday Inn Express?
So if a non-expert is holding court about a medical subject, it’s best to pass on their input.
What about personal experience? While it is true many people who themselves have been patients can be a source of good information about medical conditions, not everyone is and you don’t know if the unknown person sharing information about their health received good care and good advice or not. In addition, some patient groups have ties to Pharma or other sources of funding that might be a conflict of interest. I’ve seen people who received amazing information from online patient groups or from other people who they have interacted with online and also those who received very harmful advice. So this is an area to proceed with caution and use the other tips here to cross check for accuracy. The personal experience of others is likely most useful once you have a solid grounding in the medical condition or concern.
Also, personal experience represents a single data point which might be medically true but it might be an anomaly or a spurious finding. And while lots of anecdotes often add up to something, without a controlled study, we can’t be sure that is the case. The human body is wonderful and amazing, but it is also complex which is why clinical trials with control groups are necessary.
Tip 4. Be Very Mindful of the Comments
Even one negative or ad hominem attack in the comment section of a well researched post or article can change your opinion about the truthful information that you just read. Be conscious of this and remember that if you are reading an article from an expert, the negative comments are typically not from experts. They are often from the lash extension lady or the gym owner.
I get that the comments can sometimes be fun, but if you are someone who is on the fence about a subject, say vaccine safety, or just starting your research on a subject it is really best to move along and look for sites that limit comments or don’t have them altogether. That’s why commenting here is limited to those who are subscribers, otherwise every article about vaccines or Big Natural would be a troll magnet.
Tip 5: Promotion of Homeopathy is a Bright Red Flag
Homeopathy literally defies the laws of physics and is a scam. Many people believe in homeopathy without really understanding how it is supposed to work, so if you are unsure or think it is botanicals you can read more here. Homeopathy means a substance has been diluted so much that the remaining water contains a memory that makes it more potent. Oh, and often the original source material is diseased tissue or infections.
No study has ever shown that homeopathy is effective and it is not compatible with the laws of physics. Homeopathy is to medicine as magic carpets are to airplanes. If your airplane pilot told you that in addition to flying airplanes, they also flew magic carpets (and they weren’t kidding), would you want them to fly your airplane? Do you want a pilot whose flight school devoted 40 percent, 20 percent, or even 10 percent of its time to magic carpets? Might you wonder what else was taught incorrectly?
Research tells us that medical doctors who prescribe homeopathy are more likely to prescribe prescription medication inappropriately, although the reason isn’t known. It could be a lack of respect for evidence-based medicine or other factors, but it is something to consider. Homeopathy is typically part of the curriculum for naturopaths, so that is something to think about when taking medical advice from naturopaths.
A provider can NOT be evidence based and believe in homeopathy. So if a medical provider or a website mentions homeopathy as a treatment option for anything, pass on by.
Tip 6: Look out for Conspiracy Theories
Anti vaccine, anti fluoride, 5G, microchips, and bras cause breast cancer are some examples (that last one has been featured on Goop). Conspiracy theories are not medicine, they are fringe beliefs promoted by the ignorant that are not supported by evidence. Interestingly, people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to buy supplements. This may explain why functional medicine providers and naturopaths seem to be more invested in medical conspiracy theories, as they also tend to recommend untested supplements and often they have a financial investment in the sale. Basically, conspiracy theories can be converted into cash. Look At Will Cole’s website, he’s a functional medicine provider endorsed by Goop. He has the gall to write that medicine is “Heavily influenced by profit-driven pharmaceutical and insurance companies.” and yet seeing him may cost you $1000-$5000 when you factor in the $780 consultation fee and the tests and supplements. And yes, his site has a shop.
The term “hidden secret” should be considered a code for a conspiracy theory as the term implies there is, or once was, an amazing therapy that “forces” have kept from you. “Ancient” is another one. As an aside, don’t you ever wonder how the people who discover “ancient” remedies aren’t anthropologists or archeologists or scholars in the field? Like, how did Goop’s jade egg expert (eggspert) know about “ancient” jade eggs, but scholars of Ancient Chinese history did not?
Also, in ancient times mortality in the first year of life was 30-50%. Ancient doctors thought the uterus wandered the body like a wild animal. Ancient people died from minor infections we can treat with antibiotics. These are not exactly glowing testimonials for “ancient remedies”.
Many websites dabble in soft core conspiracies under the guise of “just asking questions,” a favorite explanation from Goop. The content written by “experts” for Goop often dials it down a little, but follow the links to their websites and you are in conspiracy theory swampland and a medical shit show. For example, Dr. Axe has been featured multiple times on Goop.
This might lead a curious reader to think, “Hmmm, I like herbs and spices and I’d like to get the most out of my workout. If GP thinks this highly of him, let me head to Axe World and find out some more.” There in Axe World you will find nuggets like chlamydia can be treated with echinacea, garlic, and probiotics.
I just can’t. And no.
Did I make your eyes roll into the back of your head? Put some goldenseal on it (I mean, don’t).
Goop, and sites like it, can be a gateway to hard core truther-ville.
Tip 7: Run, Don’t Walk from any Provider or Site that Pushes Testing of MTHFR or Special Folate for MTHFR
MTHFR is the gene that produces the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase. Many people have variants in this gene and it literally means nothing. I have some detailed information on it here. Because having a gene that has a mutation sounds scary, it is easily exploited by a rogues gallery of medical con artists. If any provider or site mentions MTHFR testing, or anything to do with MTHFR in a positive light, they are either ill-informed or a full on grifter, or both. That includes companies like Ritual that use incorrect information about this common variation to scare people into buying their vitamins. Notice they want you to buy their vitamins, so don’t forget about Tip 1. Also, their vitamin has not been shown to protect against neural tube defects.
MTHFR is a grift that touches so many areas of medicine, obstetrics, menopausal hormone therapy, vaccines, nutrition, and autism just to name a few, so it’s an easy ticket to nope-ville.
Tip 8: VAERS is quoted as a source of information.
Raw data from VAERS, the vaccine adverse event reporting system, simply can’t be used in blogs or news articles or Instagram posts. That was never its original intent. It was literally not designed to be used for raw data. Adverse vaccine reports from VAERS needs to be analyzed and investigated by appropriate experts and then reported appropriately via the CDC or in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Tip 9: Health Halo Terms? Hell No.
Pure, natural, clean, detox, cleanse, and our old friend ancient. These words have health halos. They are known in rhetoric as God terms and when we hear them we tend to fill in the blank positively. The person selling a natural cure doesn’t even have to tell you how it supposedly works, because you have already assumed it does. And that it is good for you! Health halo words are a sign a site or provider should be ignored.
As an aside, I am fascinated by the fact that many of these terms overlap with the language of purity culture.
Tip 10: Personal Anecdotes and Testimonials are Not Scientifically Valid
Sites that feature personal stories should be ignored. If you are making decisions about your health, you want real studies that are well-designed. For every story you hear in favor of some wild new cure, there might be 100 stories where someone tried that same cure and it didn’t work, it's just that the manufacturer of the product isn’t amplifying those negative experiences. Plus, you have no way to verify the claims. That is what actual medical research is for. If the page you land on starts with testimonials, ignore it and move on. This is a huge issue on Instagram and TikTok as influencers are often being paid for personal anecdotes, and while these influencers are experts in making that personal sale, they are definitely not experts on health.
Tip 11: Look Up Products and Manufacturers on the FDA Site
Many manufacturers and physicians have received warning letters from the FDA or had actions taken against them by the FDA. Maybe you might want to know more before you trust this person or product? Some examples are Dr. Joseph Mercola (the Sultan of Sketchy), testosterone pellets, and Dr. Charles Runnels (inventor of the definitely give it a pass O-shot).
If you have a bad reaction to a product, you can report it to the FDA here. Like VAERS this is raw data, but if the FDA gets enough reports on a product they will investigate.
Tip 12: Make a Plan and Start right.
I suspect many people spend more time planning dinner or writing a grocery list than planning their health research! Getting quality information matters, even more so at the start of your search because the first thing you read is likely to have the biggest impact, and if it’s wrong it could set you on the wrong and potentially even dangerous path. Also, this is your health! It matters.
Take some time to plan your search strategy. What questions do you want answered? Write them down! Which medical professional societies are likely to have good information? If you are unsure, ask your provider what medical association covers the area that interests you, and use your new Google Med Skills (see Tip #2) to start there.
Another strategy is to ask your doctor if they use the education platform called UpToDate? If they do, ask them for the patient handout that is appropriate for your health concern(s). Ask for the basic and advanced one (sometimes there are two). This and a handout from a medical professional society should be the first two things that you read for most health conditions.
Write down the tips listed here and cross reference against what you read. There are always exceptions to some of the rules, and so it’s wise to really consider everything here. For example, a doctor is a medical professional to trust with medical, but if they sell supplements they have bias. If they are into conspiracy theories, they are ignorant and should be ignored.
The Medical Internet should belong to everyone, and with these rules hopefully you can make it work better for you.