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Calling Dr. Google: How to Know If You Can Trust Health Information You Read Online

Person using smartphone and laptop

Neurosurgeon Stephen J. Dante, MD, practiced in South Jersey as part of the Penn Medicine Virtua partnership that began to provide patients with easier access to care for neurological disorders. Dr. Dante is an expert in diagnosing and treating the most complex neurological disorders, especially those related to the spine.

Calling Dr. Google

Can you imagine life without search engines? If you're age 30 or older, you probably remember a time before you could plug virtually any question into Google, Bing, or Yahoo and get dozens of answers in seconds.

Now, though, internet searches are engrained in our life. For medical concerns, it's natural to seek out quick answers from Dr. Google. Maybe you want to understand your health condition better or research a treatment your doctor has recommended. You may also go searching for causes of a set of symptoms — and end up stressed by the answers that come up.

"One of the things we face all the time is the internet. It's a great tool, but it can create a lot of confusion," says Penn Neurosurgeon Stephen Dante, MD, who says he first started hearing patients' concerns about health information they'd found online a decade ago. Today, he calls the internet a "great resource, with potential pitfalls."

Find Sources You Can Trust

That's why when searching for health information online, you should pay close attention to the sources of the information you find. In general, you can trust health information from:

  • The government (National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc.)
  • Universities
  • Health organizations (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Cancer Society, etc.)
  • Hospitals

These sources generally ask physicians, other medical experts, or anyone quoted to review the information presented. They also update their pages regularly because they understand that health information changes constantly, as researchers learn more about diseases and treatments. Look for a reviewed or updated date at the top or bottom of the page.

For other sites, check the about section to see if they use an editorial board or if an expert reviews information before it's posted. If you're reading research studies, think about how many subjects the study involved, and look at when and where it was published.

Be Skeptical

Question sensational information that calls something a "miracle cure" or boasts "immediate results." And don't jump to trust advice from businesses or bloggers that are selling their own products.

"It's a balancing act," Dr. Dante says. "Often, I encourage patients to feel comfortable getting information online, but not to rely solely on the internet because you don't know how valuable the information is. There's no referee to look and say if it's legit or questionable."

If you're using a site that asks you to input any personal health information, be aware of the potential risks. Just like when sharing financial information online, check for privacy and security policies that protect your data and block others from accessing it without your permission.

It's not all negative, though. Online research can help you understand your condition better or feel more confident in a treatment plan your physician has recommended. You may find support groups of other people who have similar diagnoses, and online information can spur questions to ask during your next appointment.

Just remember: Face-to-face time with your doctor is a key part of the diagnosis and treatment process. The way a patient looks, sounds, or acts can tell a physician a lot about what's going on with the patient's health and potential diagnosis.

Plus, Dr. Dante adds, from a patient's perspective, "It's important that you feel your physician is trying to make a connection with you, that you feel you're not another widget, and that you have time to explain your concerns and fears."

Your physician offers that personal touch, sympathetic ear, decades of experience and intuition not available through Dr. Google.

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