Best Practices for Online Medical/Health Research
August 27, 2020 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Which sites are the most trustworthy sources of medical information when it comes to researching things like drug interactions, diet questions, etc?

Right now I am trying to evaluate whether a component in a protein shake I drink is giving me terrible nightmares. I googled the ingredient's name + nightmares, but since it's not an FDA approved substance, I couldn't find reliable information about its properties or side effects. Links to Livestrong and Reddit were the top results for a full page. (I decided to email my psychiatrist instead.)

This happens a lot in other scenarios, though -- I'll Google symptoms of a sickness or the side effects of a medication, and while sometimes I get results from places like Mayo Clinic, most of the time I get links to sites I don't recognize or don't think are valid sources of info. To be clear -- Google is NOT my doctor and I don't treat it as such. I'd just like to be able to do some more informed research when I have questions about certain things without sending email after email to my doctors.

How do I assess the validity of a website as a source of info for medical information?
posted by Kitchen Witch to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Follow up: to maybe narrow down the scope of this question, I am really trying to do research on foods and dietary supplements right now,.and this is where I am having the most trouble finding reliable sources of info. I feel like this Cosmo article on flat tummy teas is better researched than some of the stuff I come across.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 9:10 PM on August 27, 2020

For dietary supplements, I highly recommend I research dietary supplement ingredients for a living, and it's a great place to start. Another I thing I do: search on "[ingredient name] efsa health claims". That will bring up the European Food Safety Authority's opinion, if it has one. Or "[ingredient name] health canada" to get Canada's opinion, though Canada is not so rigorous as EFSA. One thing to pay attention to is the effective amount of the ingredient -- often, dietary supplements have only a little bit of the so-called active ingredient -- Health Canada and EFSA will give you that amount, if there are approved health claims associated with an ingredient.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:24 PM on August 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

For evidence-based information, Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health are good, and easily searchable.
posted by lulu68 at 9:34 PM on August 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

The most authoritative source for dietary supplement side effects, drug interactions, etc. is Natural Medicines, but it is not free.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:39 PM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I use Medscape. It requires a registration, but is otherwise free. The content is primarily aimed at medical professionals, but I've found it very useful researching my conditions and medications over the years.
posted by michswiss at 10:39 PM on August 27, 2020

In med school (class of 2019) we used a truly awesome nutrition handbook called the Nutrition Guide For Clinicians. It doesn't talk much about bizarre supplements, but it will tell you, say, what the evidence-based diet recs for asthma are. It is available free online here. Note especially the introductory chapters about micronutrients and macronutrients.
posted by 8603 at 4:52 AM on August 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Memorial Sloan Kettering has a database of information on supplements. It's free.

UptoDate is actually used by doctors. I found out about it when my own doctor printed out an article for me. It's continually updated (thus the name) to reflect the latest research. Some articles are free, and some require a subscription, but you can get a short-term, seven-day subscription for twenty dollars.
posted by FencingGal at 5:58 AM on August 28, 2020

Your library might provide access to pertinent databases, which you may be able to access from home with your library card. For example my library offers access to Gale Health and Wellness and APA PsychArticles.
posted by lyssabee at 6:35 AM on August 28, 2020

The NIH has an Office of Dietary Supplements with an extensive and heavily-researched list of factsheets. I can't think of a more evidence-based scientific source in the US. Frankly, this is what I use when a patient sends me an email about supplements.
posted by basalganglia at 7:55 AM on August 28, 2020 [2 favorites]
Dr. Michael Greger (and his crew) read ALL nutrition related articles/studies in English language science publications and provides videos summing up the info. All the money from his website and all his books is donated to charity and he does not accept any sponsor money of any kind.
(Edit to add, full disclosure, he does take a salary from the website now I think)
posted by Glinn at 8:50 AM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

tbh I avoid Medscape; it's WebMD-owned. My go-to is NIH's Medline (fast) or drug portal (comprehensively sourced). Kaiser has a smaller database; the Merck manual is free (more of a reference text).
Generally, sites for a professional audience; nothing that looks ad revenue driven.

If nothing comes up: pubmed probably has at least one case report. Alternatively change search terms to the ingredient's metabolite, or a compound including that ingredient?
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 9:20 AM on August 28, 2020

actually here is a better answer from librarians (I don't know how many are gated though)
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 9:23 AM on August 28, 2020

Subscription, but Consumer Lab has some excellent info in this regard. I don't even remember why I joined originally, but have found many of their reports thorough, interesting, and valuable. They're also putting out lots on COVID-related dis/misinfo.
posted by 10ch at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2020

not a direct answer, but you want to check more primary sources and get a through understanding of how to evaluate published medical research, i found this free class on coursera super interesting and helpful -!
posted by lightgray at 10:54 AM on August 28, 2020

Response by poster: Ooh, what's the deal with WebMD? I often pull info from there.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 11:10 AM on August 28, 2020

I used to use, which has prescription drugs and supplements, but it's also now owned by WebMD. So if there's good reasons not to use WebMD, they'd apply here. Right now it has a lot of advertising that makes it look less reliable. I skimmed a few meds that I've taken and it looks accurate to my eyes (but I'm a patient only, not a medical professional).
posted by Pink Frost at 1:45 PM on August 28, 2020

For checking drug interactions, I usually just use the Drug Interactions Checker. It seems pretty comprehensive and is a good user experience. Also just a patient and caregiver, not a medical professional, but I've had to check a lot of things over the years.
posted by limeonaire at 4:08 PM on August 28, 2020

Ooh, what's the deal with WebMD? I often pull info from there.

They're advertiser supported and some people claim that they push people towards medicines or purchasing other products that are not necessarily right for them. There are a lot of non-advertiser supported websites that are better but WebMD has good Google juice and shows up high in a lot of search results. Wikipedia (I know) has some links to sources to read more about it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:57 PM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite] is the gold standard when it comes to reporting on best-evidence medical research. Having said that, when it comes to drugs and diet, there is not a lot of high-quality research out there. It's a woeful result of lack of funding and interest. But anyhow, it's got a quick search engine for you to check.

"Cochrane’s members and supporters come from more than 130 countries, worldwide. Our volunteers and contributors are researchers, health professionals, patients, carers, and people passionate about improving health outcomes for everyone, everywhere. Our global independent network gathers and summarizes the best evidence from research to help you make informed choices about treatment and we have been doing this for 25 years.

We do not accept commercial or conflicted funding. This is vital for us to generate authoritative and reliable information, working freely, unconstrained by commercial and financial interests."
posted by storybored at 6:53 PM on August 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

ok, WebMD vs medlineplus comparison for my favorite SNRI (jk):

1) WebMD indications seem to conflate symptoms ("depression, anxiety, panic attacks...") with disorder (GAD, panic disorder)
2) it doesn't distinguish uses that are FDA-approved versus off-label
3) it says before starting, "tell your doctor or pharmacist your medical history" while Medline specifies "prescription and non-prescription medications, and vitamins you are taking or plan to take", then lists specific names
4) it doesn't seem to have an explicit warning about angle-closure glaucoma
5) it says "may take several weeks to feel the benefit" while Medline says "6 to 8 weeks or longer" - I interpret "several" as 3 or 4, which is too short for an adequate trial
6) Medlineplus has the black box warning at the start of the page unlike WebMD

hope that helps. Medscape I don't have specific issues with that I remember; it's more on principle.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 2:29 AM on August 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

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