The perils of online research

Often patients will share an interesting fact about a study or medical opinion that they found while researching their condition online. I always encourage people to be active participants in their healthcare and to advocate for their rights as a patient. Medical Doctors are often overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of work needed to keep track of the health of their patients while still staying on top of the medical journals within their speciality. Add to that all the many other journal articles on topics that are from other medical specialities or even topics only tangentially related to that MDs work. Being informed about our treatment options and health maintenance needs is the best way we can help our medical providers manage their extensive work loads while still giving us the highest level of care. It also allows us to gage whether or not we have found a good fit in our provider or if we need to perhaps change to a provider that better understands our needs.

The significant risk in doing ones own research, as a lay person outside of the medical profession, is that it is very difficult to comb through all the information that is out there to be found. Just the lack of a background in statistics alone makes reading any study extremely limited for most of us. Perhaps the largest problem is that almost all of us turn to the internet as a starting place for our research and nearly everything on the internet is based on people’s opinions rather than any sort of scientific or peer review. With the understanding that many people in medicine do not agree with each other on valid forms of care, it must also be acknowledged, that most of what is said on websites is based on a bias opinion, outright misrepresentation, or the attempt to sell a product to the consumer for profit People are promised revolutionary forms of care that standard medicine does not know about or superfoods and vitamins that promise to be the key that will solve your chronic ailments, all for the low low price of… It is very easy to cherry pick facts from scientific articles in order to make them seem as though they support a claim made on a provider or salesperson’s website. When a person has been suffering for a long time with an illness, or is faced with the initial fear of a new diagnosis, it is very easy to read these online promises and not follow through with diligent fact checking. I get very worried when I receive an email from a patient telling me that they read about a new product on a website claiming to be a cure for their illness and that, without any scientific review, they already are ingesting it to see if it works! This happens much more often than one might think. If a product has the ability to heal than it also has the ability to hurt and we should be more careful about where we get our medicines and the information about their efficacy.

One of the better ways that people can now access scientific journal abstracts online is through the website This allows lay people to access the abstracts, not the entire study article, for a brief summary of what a study set out to prove and what it did or did not succeed in proving. This is a wonderful gift from the internet for both practitioners like myself as well as for my patients. However, it is very important to note again that you are not, with few exceptions, able to see the entire article. This means that you do not get to see how the study was set up, what were the exclusion criteria for the patients, what kind of study was it, and most importantly, who funded the study. Obviously, it would be good to know if the study touting the health benefits of alcohol was funded by Budweiser or Coors or if the health benefits of the super antioxidant pomegranate was funded by the United Pomegranate Farmers Association. These things really matter as the tell us if the study was very small, or if many of the patients in the study were excluded at the end to make the results look better, or if the study had a poor blinding which allowed for participants or researches to play a role in the outcomes, and lastly who stood to benefit from the outcomes.

I hope that patients will continue to research online for their own awareness and to better educate us in the medical profession about all that is being studied out in the world. I hope that they will use sites like PubMed and Jama (Journal of the American Medical Association) to look for peer review studies. Please always take them, along with everything out there on the internet, with a large grain of salt.