In the 1980s, scientists were considered the “go to” experts for reliable information regarding our health. In the 1990s, PhD students became “the source.” By the early 2000s, it was the media we trusted. And today … Karen on Facebook knows what is best for us.
This is becoming more concerning during the unforeseen COVID-19 crisis. Every television channel has someone commenting on how to address the virus; having to spend time dispelling opinions and finding reliable data and facts can cause a lot of confusion, especially during a time when people want the most scientifically proven information.
“Everybody is an expert, especially when it comes to breast cancer,” reports Ashley Richardson, DO, breast surgeon with Comprehensive Breast Care. Everybody knows someone who has had breast cancer, subsequently, everybody has an opinion on diagnosis, treatment and outcomes, and wants to share their so-called expertise.
Patients are finding it difficult to make decisions because of all this noise. And “when patients are stressed and worried about their diagnosis, they desperately want to relieve their fears by seeking any positive information they can get their hands on,” Dr. Richardson finds. That’s when Karen on Facebook or WebMD become the source of truth.
Recently, the National Research Corporation conducted a survey of nearly 23,000 patients and found that 41 percent of them use social media sites to look for health information. Of those, nearly 94 percent said Facebook was their site of choice.
Here are a few more alarming statistics:
- More than 40 percent of consumers say information they find via social media affects the way they deal with their health.
- Approximately 59 percent of the adult population looks up health information online.
- About 30 percent of adults are likely to share information about their health with other patients via social media sites.
- The most accessed online resources for health-related information are WebMD, Facebook, Wikipedia, health magazine websites, YouTube, blogs and online patient communities.
- Approximately 35 percent of US adults have gone online to self-diagnose a medical condition that they, or someone they know, has.
- Out of the people who said they went online to find out what they, or someone else, was suffering from, 46 percent said what they found online led them to believe they needed help from a medical professional.
“Social media only will continue to grow and increasingly become the recognized source of health information, as evidenced with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Richardson reports. Consumers frequently are saying, “I can Google it” when it comes to just about any subject. What will they find in their Google search? Thousands of websites from which to choose. How do they know if the sites are credible sources of information?
“As health care professionals, we are fighting a difficult uphill battle to ensure our patients are obtaining accurate information about their health,” Dr. Richardson points out. “Karen on Facebook is not that source. We receive text messages and emails all times of the day from patients who were conducting their own research and wondering why we weren’t trying a new technique or procedure they read about on the internet,” she notes.
“As experienced, highly trained and well-educated breast surgeons, our job is to be the credible source of reliable information in the midst of all the noise; the voice that should be heard above all others, especially Karen on Facebook,” she asserts.
“In our practice at Comprehensive Breast Care, we provide our patients with evidence-based, scientifically proven information from the best medical minds in the world. We will print out information, review it with our patients, highlight the most important details and discuss it thoroughly with our patients to ensure they have the right information and understand it completely before they leave our office.
“As physicians, we will continue to help our patients find reputable health information by identifying websites with the most accurate and relevant information,” Dr. Richardson adds.
Dr. Richardson provides these guidelines to help you when navigating the internet for reliable health information:
Is the website reliable?
In general, health websites sponsored by well-known government agencies are reliable sources of information. The National Institutes of Health (nih.gov), for example, is a good resource. MedlinePlus.gov also has dependable consumer information. Other reliable websites are The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – CDC.gov – and healthfinder.gov.
Is the website written by a health care professional?
The author should be a credible, trusted source, not a private company trying to sell you a product. The site also should include contact information.
When was the information written and when was the website updated?
Look for websites that are current and contain evidence-based information.
What is the purpose of the website?
Know the goal of the website so you can better judge its content. Is the purpose of the site to inform or explain? Or is it trying to sell a product? Choose information based on scientific evidence rather than one person’s opinion.
Does the website offer quick and easy solutions or miracle cures?
Be careful of websites or companies that claim any one remedy will cure a lot of different illnesses. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Even if the website links to a trustworthy source, it does not mean that site is endorsing the website you are exploring.
Are health and medical apps reliable?
Anyone can develop a health app. Make sure you know the source of the app. When you download an app, it may ask for some personal information. Make sure the questions are relevant to the app and you are comfortable providing that information. There’s a big difference between sharing personal information through your doctor’s online health portal and posting on third-party social media or health sites.
Always remember: no information should replace seeing a doctor or other health professional who can give you advice specific to you and your medical condition.
Ashley Richardson, DO, is a fellowship trained breast surgeon in the practice of Comprehensive Breast Care. She is a member of the American College of Surgeons/American College of Osteopathic Surgeons, the American Medical Association, the American Osteopathic Association, the Michigan Osteopathic Association and the American Society of Breast Surgeons. Dr. Richardson has a special interest in high-risk breast cancer screening and management.