Selected Podcast

Navigating Online Health Information

There's a lot of good health information on the Internet.  Unfortunately there's a lot of bad information too.  How do you tell the difference?
Navigating Online Health Information
Featured Speaker:
Bud Lawrence, MD
Dr, Bud Lawrence is medical director of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital's Emergency Department, and chairman of Henry Mayo's COVID-19 response task force.

It's Your Health Radio, a special podcast series presented by Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. Here's Melanie Cole.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): The internet can be such a helpful resource for finding health information. There's so much on there these days, but it can often be difficult to know where to turn, whom to trust and what to believe. It's really important that you have the right tools to know what sites are best and safest.

Welcome to It's Your Health Radio with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. I'm Melanie Cole. And joining me is Dr. Bud Lawrence. He's the Medical Director of the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Emergency Department. And he's here to talk about quackery in health information.

Dr. Lawrence, I'm so glad you're with us, and I absolutely love this topic. So as we get going into it, especially during the pandemic, a lot of health information circulated online that was wrong and, in some cases, even dangerous. If you could give us one piece of advice, one of your best pieces of advice right off the bat, on ways to sort of weed out the bad from the good, the misinformation from the true information, what would you tell us?

Bud Lawrence, MD: Well, the first thing I would say is the main piece of advice is ask your physician. So it is so hard to get an absolute correct answer from online material, things can get very confusing. But almost always your physician should be a subject matter expert, and that is probably the person you should turn to.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): That's a great piece of advice. And most portals have messaging to your doctors these days. So you can ask your doctor something without always needing, you know, an appointment, which can not always be easy to get. Now, what do we know about the accuracy of some of the online health information? You and I both do these and I research health information for a living. So I know what I'm looking for. What do we know about some of the sites that are a little more questionable these days?

Bud Lawrence, MD: Well, what we know is there is exactly what you're describing, a very large amount of questionable data that's online and is just at your fingertips. So the big problem is people are continuously looking for answers currently in this time when we have infectious diseases that are running rampant. So people want to find out what the best recommendations are, what they should do next. And they're most commonly turning to their most accessible area of information, which oftentimes is social media. And social media has plenty of information that the platforms are willing to provide you. The question is how legitimate and how accurate is this information. And I think that's where people get into problems.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): What a great point you just made because somebody's uncle Facebook MD is telling them not to take the vaccine or telling them not to get a mammogram, because... I mean, it's just ridiculous that people believe someone on these social media sites. So how do we know what sites to believe? Does looking to see who runs or created the site or the app, does that help? Does that help tell if there's an agenda based on that?

Bud Lawrence, MD: You know, that is a great question. I would say, unfortunately, I think that the majority of information that's out there on some level or another is politicized, either conservative slant or liberal slant. And that slant tends to color the nature of the information that's being provided to you.

So I think one thing you can do as a start is to take a look online at a media bias guide. And these guides are just little photographs, essentially, that will tell you where on the spectrum of accurate information to inaccurate information versus far left or far right information is being provided at whatever particular news outlet you're curious about. And that can then guide you to hopefully find something that's on the more accurate side and on the more central side of things, so that you're getting the most unbiased information possible. That's a great place to start. Other than that, it can be very challenging to find out what type of a slant the information you're receiving has on it without having a really good understanding of the source of the information.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): Well, of course, we know the podcasts from Henry Mayo Newhall hospital are reliable. We are giving you trusted information from physicians that are on staff at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, so you could trust these podcasts and share them with your friends. But on to the next question, Dr. Lawrence. So a lot of the sites, and even the WebMD-ish kind of sites, have all these ads all over them. And some of the ads, you know, the claims seem a little too good to be true. Why do some of these have so many ads for supplements or procedures? And should that be a red flag at all?

Bud Lawrence, MD: You know, I'm not sure it should necessarily be a red flag. You have to understand these sites, WebMD, Mayo Clinic, which are all sites that tend to provide fairly reliable information, not always exactly reliable information, but for the most part, somewhat trustworthy, these sites have to have some sort of revenue source. And they're able to provide you this information essentially at no cost unless you have a subscription by having advertisers on the site. And I would say there's probably less than adequate oversight of who those advertisers might be. They're trying to reach patients who are potentially looking for procedures or looking for other medical interventions. So, I wouldn't obviously put much stock in the ads or click on any of the ads from those sites. But it brings up a very good point that we do have some areas of resource where you can look and find very reasonable information to reference off of. And WebMD is certainly one of those. Mayo clinic has some information and other academic facilities may have information, which you can refer to as well.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): That's a great point that you made, that they do have to profit from it in some way. They have to be able to keep it running. And when you talk about websites we can trust, I'm going to throw a few of my own favorites out there doing what I do. And of course, let's not forget that Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital has an online health library that has so much useful information, and you can find that at I love Healthline. I love Medscape and ScienceDirect, Nature, Healio. Now, those are on the higher end. UpToDate, really great. But as you said, many institutions have a lot of good quality information and NIH, CDC, some of those, right? And then we can look at the institutions specifically for a particular condition like American Diabetes association. Do you have some thoughts on those and more to offer?

Bud Lawrence, MD: You bring up a bunch of great websites to reference. But it's really important to understand what you are looking for. Are you looking for a surgical procedure? Do you have a concern about an infectious disease? If you have an infectious disease concern, the CDC or the local department of public health oftentimes provide excellent information, particularly for things like COVID. So there are many areas to resource it. It's just challenging if you're a lay person and you don't have a good understanding of medical literature, because medical literature is really the end-all be-all place to find yourself if you're looking for answers. But you have to be able to understand that, which is why I do tend to refer people to ask their physician, who's been able to maybe read and digest the medical literature and provide you with a concise and more appropriate answer.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): One-hundred percent, and that's true. But some of the good wellness tips or prevention advice, not on a specific procedure or disease condition, but wellness tips, prevention advice, all the major organizations have those kinds of things. We can trust that, right? They're giving us good wellness tips and health information.

Bud Lawrence, MD: Generally speaking, yes. I think the information that you're going to receive from those particular sites should be fairly accurate and reliable. It's very uncommon to have unreliable information from those sites. You know, the only issue, the caveat would be that things in medicine change. That's one of the amazing things about medicine. We're always learning new things. So what may be pertinent now and appropriate now may not be necessarily accurate next year or five years from now. So it's important to also revisit and update yourself as a patient into what the current recommendations are.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): Well, that's another good point that you just made, is when was the information written or reviewed and we need to make sure it's up-to-date, right?

Bud Lawrence, MD: That's correct. And sometimes you'll get information from a certain website and that may be from 2002. And that website may have provided the most up-to-date excellent answer in 2002, but that may not be the case for what you're looking at today.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): So I'd like you to end as you began with your very best advice. And you've told us about physicians and getting in touch with our physicians, but I would like you in this part, Dr. Lawrence, to give us your best advice if we are searching online because people will. And so from you, an ER doc, a trusted physician, tell them what they should really pay attention to to be able to tell whether something is really misinformation or not. Can you just summarize for us?

Bud Lawrence, MD: Yeah. I mean, first and foremost, I would really advise against getting any medical guidance from social media. Now, the caveat to that would be there are certain physicians, medical organizations, Henry Mayo, for example, who are going to place posts or videos on social media for you to digest, and I think those are appropriate. But if you're getting medical advice from some site that is on social media or some other group that's not a physician or not a hospital or some type of, you know, the American Cancer Association, I would be very concerned about that information in terms of its accuracy. Not that it's incorrect, but, you know, I would really try to verify that with a better source.

And I think, if you're on social media or even searching the internet a good way to maybe see if something may not be accurate is to better understand if there's a political agenda in the background which we're seeing so much these days, is political agendas that are driving misinformation. So whether it's a far left or a far right agenda, I think that you should try your best to recognize if there is any political motive behind the information that you're receiving. And if so, I would tend to maybe not take that information to heart or at least look into other sources to corroborate the accuracy of that information.

So I think that's where some people have kind of found themselves down a little bit of a rabbit hole during this crazy time, is not really corroborating. So another great thing is to try to get information from multiple sources to make sure you're getting the right information.

Melanie Cole, MS (Host): That's great advice, because that's really a good way to kind of discern it when you get it from multiple sources. And I thank you so much, Dr. Lawrence. As always, you are such a great guest with such really high quality information. And that's what it's all about, listeners. And you're getting it right here on It's Your Health Radio with Henry Mayo Newhall hospital, and they are experts and specialists. So thank you again, Dr. Lawrence.

And Henry Mayo has an online health library in which all the information has been vetted by medical experts. You can find the health library at And that concludes this episode of It's Your Health Radio with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. I'm Melanie Cole.