5 Ways to Avoid Falling for False Health Information Online

by Natalie Kiser

The moment you feel a tickle in your throat or spot a new rash on your child it’s easy to turn to Dr. Google. From the comfort of your couch, you can enter your symptoms into a search engine and begin down a rabbit hole of potential causes, symptoms, and treatments. “Dr. Google has never been to any of our med classes, but they probably are the most popular doctor out there,” Jessica Shepherd , M.D., an OB-GYN and founder of Her Viewpoint joked at a BlogHer Health panel sponsored by Pfizer about discerning the reliable health information online from the fake. 

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Sometimes, an online algorithm of results from Google and other search engines can help you figure out what’s going on. But turning to the web does not always mean accurate information as is the case with COVID-19. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than three-quarters (78%) of U.S. adults either believe or aren’t sure about at least one of eight false statements about the COVID-19 pandemic or COVID-19 vaccines. This isn’t surprising when you factor in more than 1 in 10 news websites accessed by Americans includes incorrect information about health. But fear not. Below, read how to discern between good and questionable health information online and offline, according to physician panelists.

1. Don’t be fooled by glitz and glam

Just because something *looks* professional doesn’t necessarily mean the information is solid. “It can be hard to tease those things apart,” Cara Natterson , M.D., a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author of puberty and parenting books said. 

Health sites can often be boring and not the most aesthetically exciting. “In general, the things in medicine that look the least shiny and beautiful are usually pretty legitimate.” (Ahem, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s site .) Why? If a plain site is packed with legitimate information, that can be a sign that the organization is spending its resources on quality information — not aesthetics.

“As an OB-GYN, our golden standard is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists ,” Dr. Shepherd added. “The website might not look so great, but the information is valid and evidence-based.”

2. Keep scrolling — for the footnotes

Not on Insta — on the sites you’re reading. “If you do a quick scroll to the bottom of a site, you can usually see where they got their information from,” said Dr. Shepherd. 

Was it from a trusted medical journal? Was it written by an expert in the field like a doctor? Does a short bibliography simply mention that the information was pulled from someone’s blog? 

Citations can help you validate information. “I can’t say enough about looking at the source,” said Stephanie Canale , M.D., a board-certified physician and founder of Lactation Lab. If you’re not sure a source is legitimate, ask people you trust who know the industry. “Finding credible sources is actually quite easy. There are a lot of physicians who have no problem taking time to help someone.”

3. Bookmark the good

It goes without saying that not all health websites are created equal — but there are plenty of standouts that experts trust. “I usually send people to CDC.gov [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website], which has very strong evidence-based information,” said Dr. Shepherd. 

Yasmeen Agosti, M.D., medical lead for the global maternal immunization franchise at Pfizer, pointed to websites for professional associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics . “They have a great website that’s very family-friendly and easy to understand.”

Dr. Natterson also referred to a website called UpToDate , which includes some free content but is mostly viewable via subscription . “It’s every doctor’s favorite website because it is all the up-to-date information that is totally valid. You can always ask your doctor to give you the uptodate.com information.”

When in doubt, ask your doctor what sites you should be bookmarking and going back to overtime, suggested Dr. Naterson.

4. When in doubt, see your doctor IRL (or virtually!)

Getting hit with a tidal wave of online information can be very overwhelming, said Dr. Agosti. That’s why, often, it’s best to streamline the information you’re finding online with an offline, in-real-life conversation.  “Some guidance from whoever your trusted healthcare provider is really helpful because it can help you have the right questions and go to the right sources.” 

This also ensures advice is tailored to you and your individual needs. That kind of specific guidance (that can only really come from someone who knows you and your medical history) is key in making sure health advice fits in with your lifestyle, medical conditions, and goals. 

5. Find a new support system if you’re not happy with your existing one

Ever feel like you’re not exactly able to talk to your doctor about your individual journey or discuss different options for a treatment plan or a condition you might have? It might be time to look elsewhere. 

“I always advocate for patients to get a second opinion or to go talk to another healthcare provider in order to find someone where that relationship becomes such that they want to go to that person as their advocate,” said Dr. Shepherd. If you don’t feel like you’re getting along with your doctor or feel as though you’d like to have a conversation elsewhere, ask for a referral, see if you have a friend who has a doctor they get along with, or do some research on specialists in your area. 

“That’s the best thing you can do for your health,” Dr. Shepherd emphasized. “Find someone who can advocate for you.”

This article was created by SheKnows for Pfizer.