Writer: Richard T. Bosshardt, M.D., FACS
In this technologic age, doctors remain the best source of medical advice.
What should I eat? What supplements should I take? How much exercise should I get, and what type is best? What can I do to stay healthy? These are questions all of us ask. With respect to your health, the overarching question becomes: where do you get your health information?
Information comes to us from multiple sources: health care providers; personal contacts with friends, co-workers, and family; media advertising; and the internet in a flood that overwhelms the ability of even the most capable person to deal with it.
We live in an age where we talk about “true facts” versus “fake facts.” The first is redundant; the second is an oxymoron. If a fact is, indeed, a fact, then it must be true. To make intelligent, reasoned decisions in all areas of our lives, we must have good information. Let’s review some of those sources of health information and see how they stack up.
Health care providers
It seems the obvious source for medical information is your physician. All physicians receive the same comprehensive medical education in medical school and train for a minimum of three more years to become board-certified in a specialty. The problem is physicians have no time for educating patients; they are focused on diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and chronic problems.
Medical education in the United States is traditionally very strong in diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and weak in prevention. This is changing, but pressure on physicians is greater than ever. It is estimated that physicians spend more than one-third of their time in practice on something other than direct patient care, such as entering data into computers.
Today, a great deal of medical information is provided to patients by physician extenders and mid-level providers—medical assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants. The information is reliable and, mostly, up-to-date. The limitation is primarily time and access—you simply can’t see your health care provider whenever you wish or for as long. People without health insurance have a difficult time seeing a provider, period.
Friends, family, co-workers
Unless they are trained health professionals, the people around you are in the same boat you are. Testimonials are all well and good, but your situation may be very different. As every physician knows, no treatment program works for everyone equally. The source of your peers’ information may be unreliable, biased, or wrong. Medical advice from those around you must be taken with a dose of skepticism.
This includes any ad, anywhere. Don’t forget that the primary goal of all ads is to get you to purchase the product or service. Many ads imply, or state explicitly, their product is effective and, if you can ignore the speedy recitation of risks almost as an afterthought, safe. Ads often cite supportive “studies.” When reviewed, however, these are found to be flawed or clearly biased.
As a physician, I often have to un-educate patients regarding information I know to be untrue or not applicable to them. A modern version of an ad is the “infomercial,” an advertisement cleverly disguised as information. They often look professional and slick to avoid the appearance of an ad, but they also offer a particular product or service. Even physicians can be duped by slick advertising from representatives of pharmaceutical companies. I learned to beware of any information coming from a source that wants to sell me something.
We have, at our fingertips, access to more knowledge in an instant than at any time in human history. The problem is much of the information we receive on the internet is biased, misleading, or flat-out wrong. How can you know what to believe and what not to? Many websites that present themselves as informative are really promoting a product or line of products or services, all at a fee. When I do a Google search on a particular topic, I avoid sites that profit from their advice. This is especially true for websites promoting alternative medicine and dietary supplements, programs, and product lines to improve health. Some may be good, even great, but my skeptical nature wonders about the financial motivation behind the site.
I tend to stick with sites for nonprofit organizations dealing with medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes, sites belonging to reputable universities, and government sites. A listing of reputable sites is not possible, but some links are provided below. Although such sites provide good information on just about anything, you still need the person who knows you best and in the best position to advise you—your doctor. You can argue that doctors have a profit motive, too, and there is no question that a few physicians practice with financial gain foremost, no other medical professional takes an oath similar to physicians to practice with their patient’s best interests as the overriding priority.