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 literature itself.

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.