I’m a big believer in patient empowerment — having them researching as much as they can about their conditions. Modern doctor-patient relationships are very interactive, and less patriarchal than in previous generations. I think it’s great when patients come in with a lot of internet information. Unfortunately, a lot of what they bring me just isn’t very scientific or accurate. So, let’s try to discuss and agree on which consumer health websites should be most trusted.
Testimonials = Do Not Trust It
I see this time and again; a health website, especially for a product, will have a big link to “Testimonials!” and showcase glowing reports from persons. OK, a testimonial certainly can be true, but I see this as a huge red flag. Any website that emphasizes testimonials over research is hiding something — usually, hiding the fact that there is no good, peer-reviewed research supporting their product. From a doctor’s perspective, a couple glowing individual reports are clinically irrelevant because every medicine or treatment has a built-in placebo effect. What that means is that automatically, around 30-40% of people will get better just from taking a fake (“placebo”) pill. It’s a powerful indicator of the body’s ability to heal itself just by thinking you’re taking real medicine.
But what this placebo effect also means is that you cannot rely just on glowing testimonials, because those patients could be the 30% that experienced the placebo effect. You need to see controlled studies that prove this medicine works better than placebo. And if your websites aren’t sourcing real research, from journals and organizations that are considered respectable, then you should look for another website.
What About General Health Websites?
As a doctor, my #1 website is UptoDate.com. It is an expensive internet-based review for physicians, and thousands of doctors like myself rely on it for the most researched evidence-based medicine available. They do have a patient information section, but I must warn you that it’s not extremely user-friendly and the writing is a bit too high level for consumers. Still, if you can slog through the data, you can be sure that the recommendations are very well researched.
There are a few other consumer websites that I feel can be most trusted, and which are also very readable and easy on the eyes; I’ve listed them below. You should check each one out, as well as UptoDate’s above link, and decide which is best for you and your family.
And Search Engines?
When a patient walks in looking for an obscure medicine, Google is the first place I check, and usually I have the info in 5 seconds. But for general health research (like typing in “common cold”), the thousands of choices are not helpful. But I actually have gotten some useful information at wikipedia.com, and I do trust it more than any random site since it is constantly open-reviewed and has no commercial ads or selling bias. One review last year concluded that wikipedia had essentially the same accuracy as Encyclopedia Britannica.
My Top Consumer Sites
- FamilyDoctor.org — run by my U.S. Board of Family Medicine, these articles are perfect for printing out and the most readable of any patient hand-outs I’ve seen
- WebMD.com – This is a bit tough to drill into, but generally very user friendly
- MayoClinic.com – from the famous U.S. clinic, this site is very user friendly and well researched
- HealthFinder.gov – this terrific site collects all the U.S. health website information into very readable sections
Top Doctor Sites
- UptoDate.com – my #1; expensive but essential
- Medscape.com – free articles; great newsletter updates
- New England Journal of Medicine – one of the world’s top journals, this website is wonderfully interactive and free for everyone in China
- Top General Health Websites You Can Trust, from the Consumer and Patient Health Information Section of the Medical Library Association
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