Health information you can't trust

July 28, 2011

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

When you're sick, health bloggers, the evening news, or popular magazines can provide a wealth of information about your illness and how to treat it. However, for anyone trying to make informed health decisions, it's absolutely essential to understand that the most popular health news has gone through a process similar to the children's game of "Telephone," and if you act on it at face value, it may do more harm than good.

By the time the average person encounters a piece of health news, it has probably passed consecutively through a dozen different sources. The sequence usually looks something like this:

  1. Peer-reviewed medical journal
  2. General science magazine
  3. Popular science magazine
  4. Popular news website
  5. Morning radio news program
  6. Watercooler talk

S. Holly Stocking, PhD, makes a good case in the book How Do Journalists Think that health news becomes progressively less accurate as it goes through this sequence. Writers unconsciously distort complex ideas into simpler, more sensationalized ones partly because simpler ideas take up less room and are easier to express. Every time an additional media outlet picks up information from another outlet and revamps it for their audience, the simplification process happens again. Even worse, at every point in the process, it becomes less likely that the person reporting the information has read even part of the original research.

"Having a reliable method for finding trustworthy health information is a basic survival skill"

Another issue that should make you take popular health news with a grain of salt (and perhaps conduct your own online medical research) is that journalists "like everyone else" tend to confuse correlation with causation. That is, an issue that occurs at the same time as a second one is mistakenly seen as causing it. For example, in 1996, researchers found that nurses in one ten-year study who drank three or four cups of coffee a day had a much lower risk of committing suicide than nurses who didn't drink coffee. This may have been caused by an almost infinite number of factors--coffee drinking nurses might have been more naturally social than others, for example, or they were benefiting from taking more breaks. However, within weeks, the popular media was trumpeting the "fact" that coffee prevents suicide.

This may sound funny, but the truth is that even well-informed patients sometimes delay seeking proven treatment because an unproven treatment is being touted in the news. In my opinion, having a reliable method for finding trustworthy health information is a basic survival skill in modern society. Gaining that skill isn't easy, though, so in future posts, I'll cover how anyone with an internet connection and a critical mind can do their own quality health research online and dodge the minefield of media distortions.


Originally published Jul 28, 2011 7:29:53 AM.