By Jason Rothstein, MPH
For many of us, our first instinct when facing a medical
question is to 'ask Dr. Google.' In fact, so many people turn to Google when
they're sick that researchers have used search data to detect flu outbreaks
and other epidemics. But the truth is that when it comes to researching serious
questions about our health, asking Dr. Google can backfire badly.
First, the web is full of misinformation about health and
medicine. In some cases, medical myths bubble to the top of search results
simply because they are so common. In other cases, persons or organizations
with an agenda – or something to sell – deliberately promote misinformation,
sometimes with injurious or even deadly impact.
Second, people have biases related to their own experiences.
Suppose your doctor recommends a common surgical procedure. If you do a Google
search, you will likely find hundreds of postings from patients detailing the
terrible experience they had with that surgery. You think to yourself, "My
doctor said that negative side effects were rare and only occur in 5% of
patients? How is this possible?" It’s possible because the 95% of patients who
had a good experience didn’t have a reason to post about their negative
experience. They recovered well, and moved on with their lives.
You can feel reasonably confident that mainstream medical
organizations publish reliable information on their websites, but what about
when you need to go deeper? One approach you can take is to read the medical
Finding medical literature is pretty easy. You can search
hundreds of journals through Pubmed.
A high percentage of articles are freely available due to regulations that
require research funded by the U.S. government to be accessible to the public.
In other cases, you may need to use a library to gain access. (University
libraries have access to more journals, but public libraries typically have
some access as well.)
Understanding the articles can be more challenging. First,
scientific papers are written for other scientists (and frankly, often aren’t
well-written at all). Second, just because a paper was accepted for publication
doesn’t mean that the research was high-quality.
We recently came across a great resource: How
to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. The
post, by Dr. Jennifer Raff, outlines a great systematic process for getting to
the heart of what a published paper says and how likely it is that the research
is high-quality and relatively unbiased.
Of course, if you are trying to learn more about genetic
issues, you have another resource at your disposal as well. Our genetic
counselor can help answer questions about genetic health topics, and provide
suggestions for other resources that may be helpful to you when trying to learn
more about a genetic health issue affecting you or your family.