Health and Online Information: What to Believe?

Today, we’re living in the online world, and technology has broadened the reach of health care and helped to increase its efficiency.

Remember when? Decades ago, if you wanted general information for ideas on how to stay healthy, or as a reference to see if your symptoms warranted making a doctor’s appointment, you had several options: newspaper and magazine articles; radio and television reports; or asking your physician as part of your yearly checkup.

Today, we’re living in the online world, and technology has broadened the reach of health care and helped to increase its efficiency. Patients are increasingly educated and empowered, and interaction with your provider is no longer limited to in-person visits. Patients can receive test results quickly and seamlessly online, as well as connect with providers through email and patient portals such as MyChart.

Telehealth services—also known as telemedicine—has also seen a recent surge in popularity. While it is now completely safe to receive care in person, many patients will likely continue to choose telehealth for much of their care, even after the pandemic, as this option allows for real-time, face-to-face interaction with your provider with the comfort and convenience of your own home.

Perhaps the most significant change is the rise of the Internet and social media, which has given us access to health information like never before. With access to online information, patients have more tools to educate themselves about their personal health and issues, which has enhanced overall medical literacy. Access to high-quality healthcare resources can also lead to earlier treatment, often positively impacting medical outcomes.

Although we have seen great improvement in the credibility, accuracy and reliability of online information, it should not entirely replace a discussion with a healthcare professional.

Talking with your doctor is best, especially when seeking information that pertains to your specific health needs. But when you need information right away, the first impulse is often to rely on the simple search and click method. It’s human nature to want answers immediately, and online information can be a useful tool—if you use it wisely.

When evaluating online healthcare information, consider the source (i.e. government, professional organization, healthcare facility); make sure the information is current; look for information that has been reviewed by someone with medical or research credentials.

Your browser contains good information about confirming the credibility and accuracy of online information, including red flags to look for. UCSF Health has an excellent post on evaluating health information, which I encourage you to read at ucsfhealth.org/education/evaluating-health-information.

Information about COVID-19 vaccines

Depending on an authoritative source for public health information is especially important during the pandemic. Disinformation has become almost as dangerous as the virus, particularly when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. Numerous false claims about the vaccines have been making the rounds on social media, such as: “The vaccine uses a live version of COVID 19.” (It doesn’t.) Or, “mRNA vaccines can alter your DNA.” (They can’t.) “The COVID-19 vaccine can cause infertility or miscarriage.” (There is no link.) There’s even a disinformation campaign stating that the vaccines were developed using fetal tissue, which is in no way accurate.

I encourage you to check the website for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) frequently for useful information about COVID-19, its variants and the rollout of the vaccination program throughout our country. Other topics include: benefits of the vaccine and vaccine safety; how the vaccines work; possible allergic reactions; what to expect at your vaccination appointment; what measures you should still take after being vaccinated.

Local healthcare entities such as hospitals or county health departments are other good sources for information. You should also check your county’s website for the most up-to-date information regarding the vaccines.

 

Elizabeth H. Lowe, M.D., specializes in internal medicine and is board certified in both internal and medicine and pediatrics. A graduate of Chicago Medical School, she completed her residency and internship at Loyola University of Chicago. She practices at MarinHealth Internal Medicine | A UCSF Health Clinic, and can be reached at (415) 795-7000.

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