How to be an effective health news skeptic

4 tips from a UAlberta expert on how to get the most from health information that doesn't come from your doctor-this story included.

It's natural to want to take some sort of action when we hear or read a piece of health news that relates on a personal level, even if it's passing it along to friends or family. But the first action you should take is to be skeptical, said Tina Korownyk, a primary care physician and associate professor in the University of Alberta's Department of Family Medicine.

"It seems almost common sense to say that it's important to question the source of any health recommendations, but we get lured in by enthusiastic endorsements of products," she said. "The truth is that the vast majority of sources of consumer health news, whether it's from TV shows like Dr. Oz and The Doctors, radio or print, are not reliable."

Research by Korownyk published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The BMJ three years ago showed that about half of the recommendations made on televised medical talk shows either have no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence.

"We concluded that the public should be skeptical because the recommendations often lacked adequate information on specific benefits, magnitude of benefits and harms, and did not facilitate informed decision making," she said.

Of course, that doesn't mean all health information should be ignored.

"As a GP, I'll encounter patients who go to the opposite extreme and refuse a medication with proven benefit because they don't believe it works."

She added the primary motivation for most health-care providers is to genuinely help people.

"What everyone really needs to do is to keep an open mind, but apply a mindset of critical inquiry."

Here are four questions to ask that will help you get closer to the truth of the next piece of health news you hear.

1. What's the benefit of this information?

Say you hear about a new weight-loss drug or that taking vitamin D will treat a cold on a TV show featuring doctors. Listen closely for very specific benefit information, said Korownyk. "What you really need to know is, 'How much weight will I actually lose over what period of time?' or, 'What is the actual cold benefit I'm going to see?' 'Is it going to reduce the number of colds I get or just the symptoms of my colds?'" When you start looking closely, you will notice that benefits are often presented vaguely, such as "boost your metabolism" or "improve your brain health," which don't really mean anything and are not measurable, she added.

2. How true is this information?

The best way to vet health news is to be skeptical, said Korownyk, adding that it's important to do your own follow-up on anything you hear, searching reliable medical sources for evidence that corroborates the health claims or asking your primary care physician. "I would be more skeptical of those who are connected with aggressive advertising or who are endorsing any one specific product, particularly one that claims to treat a myriad of ills." Health interventions with proven benefit often don't need a lot of advertising; people know they work, she added.

3. What are the harms?

Often health news is not presented with specific information about the side-effects or harms that may come with use, said Korownyk. "Don't just seek out information on the benefits. You need to know its effectiveness and harms, including costs and any inconveniences of recommendations," she said. "New products on the market have often not been tested long-term in a large population. Try to avoid being the guinea pig."

Balanced information is very important, she added. "In primary care, we are moving toward a model of informed decision making where patients should feel empowered to ask doctors questions regarding the benefits and harms of the medication they are receiving.

"I just saw a patient who had been placed on a medication that cost almost $150 per month. There are much less expensive alternatives that had not been discussed, and the patient had not thought to ask. You should be asking questions based on cost alone."

4. Is there a conflict of interest?

Korownyk said this one is often harder to spot. Most peer-reviewed studies in medicine must declare any conflict of interest as a requirement for publication, but there is no specific requirement for consumer health news to do the same. If the person making the recommendation stands to benefit financially or in other ways, that should give you serious pause for thought.

"Try to listen closely to wording. And just remember, asking the question itself is important. This process is really about not taking anything you hear at face value."

When in doubt, asking a trusted health-care professional is a good start, she added.

"Decisions around health-care issues are challenging, and they require much more than non-specific recommendations based on little or no evidence from media health professionals."