Navigating online health information

You’re feeling crummy and you search your symptoms or you see a social media influencer discuss an off-label use for a medication who swears it works. But how reliable is this information? Isabel Valdez, physician assistant and assistant professor of general internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, shares how to safely navigate health information online.

A pair of hands typing on a keyboard.When it comes to asking “Dr. Google” about any symptoms you’re having, Valdez recommends skipping the search engine and heading to the source by putting in a call to your primary care provider.

“If you are having symptoms that are worrying enough to look up, you probably need to be seen by your doctor,” Valdez says. Especially if you are experiencing a fever, symptoms persist for two weeks or longer or they’re impacting your quality of life. “These are signs that your body is asking for help.”

Valdez recommends keeping a few key things in mind when looking up health information or following health social media influencers online:

  • Cross-reference the information you find on a website with information from a reputable source, such as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration or any medical school or hospital-affiliated site.
  • Check the “About Us” section of the website to see when it was last updated to make sure the information is current.
  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is so talk to your primary care provider about it!
  • If the website suddenly asks for personal information or financial information, stay away as that could be a spam risk.

“If you see something that you think might work for you, let us know,” Valdez explains. “That medication you find online may not be the answer for your situation, but we’re going to find something else to help that is better for you. We’re here to help dispel myths and provide accurate information.”

When setting up an appointment with your provider, Valdez suggests mentioning what you have discovered online, letting them know what you want to discuss ahead of time and bringing your research to the appointment.

“When patients let me know ahead of time about what they’ve found, it allows me to do my research through resources like PubMed and other journal articles,” Valdez says.

She does want patients to keep in mind that the more questions they have, the harder it is to get through all of them, and providers can allot time over multiple appointments to make sure all their questions are answered fully.

By Anna Kiappes

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