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Evaluating Health Information in Today’s World

September 28, 2009

By Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld

Understanding the Problem with Health Information

There has been a gradual but very important change in the lay public’s attitude to health information. I remember when patients used to tell me, “You’re the doctor; you tell me what to do. That’s all the information I need.” Reading about medical news was largely a matter of intellectual interest or curiosity and rarely related to one’s own health (except for the hypochondriacs among us who are always looking for and will never find an explanation of their symptoms).

But modern medical research has identified risk factors that can cause all kinds of disease – from heart attacks, stroke, and cancer to a host of infections – all of which can be prevented or delayed. So the focus is now on prevention. More and more men and women realize that “an ounce of prevention” really is worth more than “a pound of cure.”

They want to know what makes them tick, and what to do to preserve their health. For most people, it’s no longer simply a question of diagnosis and treatment of symptoms – both of which used to be the inviolable prerogative of the doctor.

How does the average patient go about learning about these risk factors and how to prevent them? It’s not as easy as it sounds. For example, everyone knows that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is good for you, but how much should we consume, and which ones are better than others? Is there any interaction between particular fruits and vegetables and prescription drugs? Leafy green vegetables, for example – as well as garlic and other natural supplements – reduce the effectiveness of the anticoagulant warfarin. In a similar vein, St. John’s Wort is affected when certain medications are taken with it. The best way to obtain this kind of practical and important information is a face-to-face session with your doctor.

Unfortunately, these days he or she doesn’t or can’t always spend the time needed to tell you all these things. And even if that were not the case, most patients would hesitate to keep calling their physicians for an explanation of all the continuously new and changing medical research findings. So you’ve got to look elsewhere. Theoretically, that should be easy. After all, we are living in an information age.

There’s more medical “information” available than ever before – in periodicals, magazines, news reports, radio broadcasts, television shows, and, of course, the Internet. The problem, however, is that although some of this information is reliable, much of it is either questionable or inaccurate. Some of it is driven by hype and self-interest, much of the rest by ignorance and superstition.

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