10 red flags to identify crappy on-line health content

Looking up medical information is the 3rd most common on-line activity. While there are good sites with great information that can help people be empowered about their health, there are also tons of terrible sites marred by bias and rife with the stench of snake oil.

Sometimes you have to read an entire article to figure out if the content is valid, but there are 10 red flags that will help you separate the wisdom from the woo:

They have a “secret” remedy or cure (especially if it is an “ancient” secret). My personal favorite is a web site (doctor run, no less) that touts ancient weight loss secrets. Obesity wasn’t really a problem in “ancient” times, so it makes me wonder if this doctor is referring to famine, the plague, or some other “ancient” pestilence.

Patient testimonials (otherwise known as the “n” of one). Not only do they smack of insincerity, but they are unverified, self gratuitous filler. In my opinion, it makes the web site more like a beauty salon than a reputable source of medical content.

Unbelievable claims. How many products in your life time have you found to be 100% effective? (Unless of course the claim is in reference to quitting smoking or achieving a body mass index of 19-24, there is a 100% chance that will make you healthier).

You can’t tell the advertising from the information. Advertising means bias, and the more advertising, the more bias. Anyone selling you something is pushing a specific agenda, subtle or not.

Use of non scientific words such as “toxins” and “heavy metal.” These words are a charlatan’s version of smoke and mirrors and are a big neon sign for “Snake oil sold here.”

Promoting therapies we know from evidenced based-medicine to be dangerous or at least ineffective, such as tanning beds, colon cleanses, and the hCG diet. Tell someone they need a tanning bed is like telling them they need melanoma.

Promoting therapies aimed at “detoxification” (also see above, use of non scientific words). Now don’t get me wrong, detoxification means something WHEN USED CORRECTLY. Detoxification means getting off of alcohol or drugs. Reality check: the liver, kidneys, and colon (the body’s waste management experts) do not need help from any herbal concoction.

Primary focus is on complementary and alternative medicine. Studies tell us that web sites with CAM content are 15 times more likely to contain medically incorrect information.

The sites is selling you something (tanning beds, herbal remedies, home tests kits…what ever). Sales = profit. Are they profiting from the noble task of disseminating information or profiting by reeling you in for the sale.

The site/product is listed on QuackWatch (an awesome web site dedicated to thwarting purveyors of snake oil).


Join the Conversation


  1. I suppose use of the term “miracle” cure comes under 1 or 3, but I reckon the non-scientific words part breaks down into two sections: misuse of genuine scientific terms and nebulous waffle like “energy”, “wellness” and “aura”.

    Another good sign it when the site tends to reference itself for everything and there’s heavy insistence on the “qualifications” of the quack-in-chief

  2. With allergies, we use these criteria:

    Quick or simple cures: One size doesn’t fit all, and regardless, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, as we learned from the subprime mortgage market.
    Diets: Food is part of the answer in some cases, but it’s not the whole story.
    Money: Will a reputable insurance company pay for part or all of the treatment? While we are no great admirers of insurance companies and health maintenance organizations, better known as HMOs, they are often a fairly reliable indicator of what has achieved recognition through scientific trial and what has not. Beware of anything that’s either too cheap or too expensive. Some quacks, like narcotics dealers, make money by dispensing their snake oil in small doses over a long period of time. Others prefer to charge exorbitant fees in advance.
    Books for sale: We recognize that this is a strange criterion, considering the circumstances. But ours is not the kind of book we are talking about. We are talking about those that make it all too simple, by authors whose credentials are in fields other than medicine, and which are promoted on talk shows with a testimonial or two from
    those who have miraculously been cured.
    Diet supplements: The generic name for this is snake oil. Look skeptically at broad claims.
    (pp. 178-9)

  3. This was hilarious, AND valuable!

    The only trouble is, now I have to run my IBS site through the list and see if I pass! And what if I don’t :>0

    Anyway I love your style, and any reference to the lasso of truth :).

    I wanted to mention, one instant tip off is no navigation, and the page just looks like a one page brochure. That means they’re not providing any other information of value and want you to focus on the sales pitch.

    Thanks for the laugh, and the reality check.

  4. Actually sometimes our organs do need the help of herbs to “detox”

    Hence the observational trial of Intravenous Milk Thistle (Silibinin-Legalon) for Hepatic Failure Induced by Amatoxin/Amanita Mushroom Poisoning. http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00915681 and previous published trials of the same St Mary’s Thistle / Silymarin extract to help repair livers from alcohol damage. http://www.natrx.com.au/epages/nms.sf/?ObjectPath=/Shops/nms/Categories/Legalon

  5. Thanks Dr. Jen!

    I found my way over here via Pharyngula, and have enjoyed exploring some of your other posts. I’m teaching a class this year about how to find reliable scientific information, which of course includes health topics. I was looking at the QuackWatch site, and the only disappointing thing there is that many of the pages haven’t been updated for a very long time. For librarians (which I am), that is often a big red flag when directing people towards information sources. Do you know of any other websites that keep track of the same sort of information? I’m always looking for good sources.

    I look forward to following your blog!

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply to Henry Ehrlich (@AACMaven) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: