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UCLA

True or False: Evaluating Health Information

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2013 8:00 AM


Never before has so much information on our health been available to so many — much of it conflicting. So how do you sift through what’s right and what’s not? How do you know if research is reliable? Which sources to trust? Here are some tips to treat health-information overload.

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Illustration by: Lou Beach

Gone are the days when all of our health discussions were with doctors. Now we’re bombarded by ads touting the latest “breakthrough” drugs and alternative remedies; news stories about the latest findings on what we should or shouldn’t consume; and social networks and websites with maybe-reliable, maybe-not information.

But for all of the advantages of this medical self-educating, there are pitfalls. How do we sift through the mounds of material, some of it questionable? Whom do we trust? How much credence do we give to new studies, some of which conflict with the old? To complicate matters, in an era of the 24-hour news cycle, competition for our attention often leads to an emphasis on entertainment and sensationalism over measured and in-depth analyses.

Dr. Peter Galier, UCLA internal medicine specialist and associate professor of medicine, notes that our consumption of health information falls into several categories. There’s the person who is experiencing a worrisome symptom and searches online for help. There’s the one who has a chronic condition, is dissatisfied with the treatment so far and is looking for new approaches. And there are those who simply stay on the lookout for new insights into how to eat and live better.

Though it can be challenging, Galier believes that when medical information is used properly and with appropriate professional counsel, we can avoid health-info pitfalls.

Consider the Source

Too often, Galier says, we indiscriminately visit the first item to pop up on our Google search. He cautions against putting too much stock in unvetted material we might get from blogs, discussion groups and other online exchanges, which are more likely to be anecdotal, inaccurate or inapplicable to our own situation. Focus instead on reliable sites sponsored by federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Or sites run by disease-specific foundations such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, or by trustworthy academic institutions such as UCLA.

What’s In It for Them?

Many patients come to Galier with misleading information obtained from advertising. “They’ll hear about a ‘new’ drug or treatment that has been out for a long time and is no better than something they’re already on, but the hype has made them want to try it,” he says. Bear in mind that advertising can take subtle forms. A website appearing to provide neutral information may be sponsored by a company with an underlying profit motive.

Citation, Please

If you’re in a gray area — where the source isn’t totally trustworthy, and you want to research it further — find out the source of the information. If statements claim to be based on evidence, are studies cited? How rigorous are the studies? How large? How many?

Not All Evidence is Equal

Whether online or through more traditional media, medical research tends to be reported as if every study warrants equal weight. In fact, there is a huge difference between, say, a small study based on patient reports and a large, randomized, controlled trial — considered the gold standard of clinical research — or meta-analysis that combines a large body of evidence on the topic. Where was the study published — a major journal or an obscure one without appropriate peer review? What do the major specialty organizations say?

Take a Deep Breath

Galier sees the same late-night commercials his patients see: If you’ve taken this drug, call this attorney. Whether legally motivated or not, reports of unwanted side effects of a medication or treatment may conveniently ignore the fact that they affect a minuscule portion of the population, or that the benefits far outweigh any risks. Context matters, and should matter to your source. Beware of sensational language, claims of miracle cures and multiple exclamation points.

Put it in Perspective

Let’s assume a study has validity. Should you immediately act on its findings? Not necessarily. Do other findings corroborate these? Even when they do, you need to think beyond these results. If a study casts doubt on the benefits of a low-fat diet in preventing a certain cancer, remember that there are other benefits to reducing fat intake. Just because a study suggests certain health benefits from red wine or dark chocolate doesn’t mean you should ignore their potential downsides, particularly if you need to count your calories.

Apply with Caution

What’s good advice for some may not be for you. “I might have a patient come to me pointing out all these studies that say he should be taking an aspirin a day,” Galier says. “Well, maybe that patient had a bleeding ulcer when taking Motrin, and because his cardiovascular risks are lower than a lot of people’s, it’s safer for him not to be on it.”

Second Opinion

When you’re experiencing a symptom, it might seem easiest to go online and “diagnose” yourself. But Galier points out that it’s not much harder to e-mail or call your physician — at minimum, to evaluate what you have learned from your search. He has no problem, per se, with his patients doing their own research. “People often see something on TV, in print or online that generates an interest and makes them learn more, which is a great thing,” Galier says. “Informed patients are more likely to ask questions, and the discussion that we have can lead them to take better care of themselves. The challenge is to make sure you’re picking up the right information, and not use what you learn in a vacuum.”

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