As if a new virus spreading across the world wasn’t scary enough, our lives have been interrupted by social distancing and for many of us, financial stress. We ask:
“How did this happen?”
“What can I do to keep my family safe?”
“Is there an end in sight?”
We crave information, because it makes us feel more in control of our lives and lets us make decisions based on facts rather than fears. But how do we get accurate medical information? It’s a paradox: the internet gives us access to massive amounts of information, but often that information is biased, misleading or simply wrong.
The first step towards getting accurate medical information is knowing who to trust. In general, information provided by the federal and state governments, by academic medical centers, and by medical professional societies will be more up to date and accurate than what you hear or read in any form of media. These sources have education and public service as part of their mission and high internal quality controls, whereas the media – even when well-intended, tends to provide superficial, incomplete overviews with a bias towards sensationalism.
Some media sources are quite excellent, but professionals with expertise in the specific area of interest are more trustworthy. In the case of COVID-19, good sources are the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, and for more detail and great links to other resources, the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The second step is to know who you may not want to trust, even though they might sound very convincing. You should, of course, trust your personal health care provider who is responsible for helping you, but just because someone else is a medical doctor or a health care professional doesn’t necessarily mean that what they are saying is accurate. On the internet and especially in social media, the loudest voices with the most convincing deliveries get the most attention, but often are inaccurate.
Third, be aware of easy answers and easy cures. Things that claim to “boost your immunity” or “detox” like vitamins, supplements and magic mixtures are not what they claim to be and sometimes are harmful. If it sounds too good to be true, it is, because medicine is complicated, even for people who practice it and research it every day.
Finally, certain health behaviors always make sense whether you are trying to fight infections, prevent heart disease, prevent cancer, or just live well. These include eating a balanced diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, and poultry, getting regular exercise, not smoking, not being over or underweight, getting enough sleep, and tending to your mental health.
Find sources of information you trust, stick to them, and try not to get swayed by easy answers and people who “seem to know.” Stick to facts. Zei gezunt!
Dr. James H. Stein is an attending cardiologist and director of Preventive Cardiology, and is the UW Health Robert Turell Professor in Cardiovascular Research, at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.