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Check your sources

by Dr. Andrew Pasternak

One of my friends recently posted an article about the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine.  When I clicked on the link, it took me to a fairly official looking webpage from a “college of physicians” with possible safety warnings.  I was somewhat shocked, since I hadn’t seen any other research or data about this. A few days later, I realized I had been duped. Fortunately, another friend who is a pediatrician, posted a response on Facebook calling out the group issuing warning. She also explained the warning wasn’t issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the primary organization that represents over 64,000 pediatricians. Instead, this bogus information emanated from a group easily confused with the AAP, but is limited to about 200 members with very specific and biased agendas.

It was a good reminder for me, especially with all of the half-truths and rumors going around the Internet, to always check the legitimacy of the source. As a physician, I’m constantly seeing recommendations, certifications or guidelines from organizations that sound and look official but are really just sham organizations with dubious goals.

How can you tell what’s legit and what’s not?  In general, most “.gov” websites have solid, reliable information. This includes medlineplus.gov, alzheimers.gov, cancer.gov, cdc.gov as well as sites for the National Diabetes Education Program and National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

The majority of the “.edu” and “.org” websites should also be fairly reliable although you need to start to be a little more careful (the site I looked at with the fictitious claims above was an “.org “site).  Some sites we like include Americanheart.org, diabetes.org, cancer.org, immunizenevada.org, sciencebasedmedicine.org and familydoctor.org.

When you get to the “.com” or “.net” websites, definitely start to do your homework and look to see the source of the information. Sites like webmd.com, quackwatch.com and others can be helpful.  Some “.com” sites, however, can be sponsored by pharmaceutical companies or other entities just wanting to make a buck.

A few of the ways the less legitimate websites can fool you include: 1) Expert panels 2) books and/or authors of books and 3) references to bogus articles.   Expert panels often consist of paid experts who don’t necessarily review the scientific literature and bring their own biases when they make their recommendations. While writing a book is huge accomplishment, books are not peer-reviewed literature and don’t necessarily contain valid evidence-based information. Similarly, while peer-reviewed articles are a great source of information, there are ways of getting articles published in less reputable journals without critical analysis. For the lay reader, it’s difficult to determine which references are legit and which aren’t.

The bottom line: the Internet can be a great resource for both patients and health care providers but check to make sure the information you’re reading doesn’t just sound reliable but is reliable. And if in doubt, always talk to your physician to get their opinion because ultimately that’s what we’re here for.

This article originally appeared in Galena Times. Reprinted with permission.