President's Prescription: Making sense of medical information online

President's Prescription: Making sense of medical information online
Dr. Tedd L. Mitchell
Dr. Tedd L. Mitchell

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that patients who are more actively involved in their health care experience better health outcomes and incur lower costs, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This week, Dr. Tedd L. Mitchell talks about how to make informed decisions about medical information you read online:

These days, patients always come into the clinic armed with information they’ve gotten online. And while it’s great to take an active role in your health care, it can be difficult to discern what's good material and what isn't.

Here are some questions to ask yourself the next time you read about new studies:

Who’s the "expert"? A publication touting the benefits of Lasik surgery written by a doctor who runs a Lasik surgery clinic would likely be biased. That's not to say the information is necessarily wrong or bad, but it's important to understand that an "expert" may have a built-in opinion on any given subject.

Do other "experts" disagree? Even when blockbuster information is being touted by some exciting new study, governing bodies like the American Medical Association tend to be skeptical. That's a good thing, and when you're researching a topic, it's important to understand what these folks have to say. Chances are they've looked at the same information you've seen (and more), so healthy skepticism may be appropriate.

How good are the numbers? If I told you 90 percent of adults understand the importance of exercise and regularly work out, you'd think that was powerful stuff. But if I told you I'd spoken to only 10 men at a gym, you'd realize the info was skewed. Look at the numbers: How many people were involved in the study? Were they representative of the general population?

Where did the "experts" get their information? The gold standard for medical research is the prospective trial. That is where groups of people are evaluated for the effectiveness of an intervention against a control group. These studies are complicated and lengthy, but they represent the best medical data. Other research formats are not as conclusive.

In medicine, when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Be careful about believing everything you read online — particularly when it comes to your medical care. For maintaining good health, I'm Dr. Tedd Mitchell.

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