When Dr. YouTube Gets it Wrong

In this age of easy access to a wealth of information at our fingertips, it’s no wonder that many of us turn to the web if we have medical questions, want more information about a condition, or want to hear from others who have learned to live with a health issue. Especially if there’s no one in our inner circle with the condition, going online allows us to find support, information, and camaraderie. We have Google, Facebook, a myriad of illness-specific websites, and of course, YouTube – but what happens when the information being disseminated isn’t entirely accurate? Of course, that also begs the question of how can you tell if a video or health information is accurate.

Health videos and YouTube

Published as a letter to the editor in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, a cross-sectional study found that nearly a third of YouTube videos on atopic dermatitis (AD) in their sample contained inaccurate and misleading information, as well as videos from for-profit companies and individuals with no health care expertise or credentials.1 The majority of the inaccurate information had to do with treatment of AD. At best, this leads to misinformation being spread and lack of effective treatment; at worst, this can lead to serious exacerbation of AD and needless delay of appropriate treatment.

The National Eczema Association estimates that 31.6 million people in the United States are living with some form of eczema.2 That’s a sizeable population to target for these for-profit companies, and companies selling products that claim to help with AD but may not necessarily work – which is why it’s so important to be aware of the sources of YouTube videos and other online health information.

Is this information accurate?

The study found that of all of the videos on AD that they examined, the ones with the highest viewer engagement were the “personal-experience” videos, the personal narratives about the condition. Of the entire sample, nearly 33% of the videos from YouTube were classified as useful; roughly 17% were categorized as misleading; and of the personal-experience videos, those same percentages held again, for useful and misleading, respectively.1

The good news is that roughly two-thirds of the videos about AD were scientifically accurate, with respectable, accurate information and sources.1 The one-third that wasn’t accurate is concerning, but this can be improved. Healthcare organizations and healthcare professionals can use these findings to create scientifically accurate videos that will engage the viewer and disseminate accurate and honest health information. Since personal narratives and personal experiences videos resonate with patients, clinicians can pair with people living with AD to make accurate videos, with doctors or nurses collaborating with them at the end to review basic facts and treatment options. Doctors should also be talking with their patients during each visit about social media and where the accurate information can be found.

Evaluating online health information

The National Institutes of Health provides some questions consumers can ask themselves when evaluating whether or not an online source of health information is trustworthy.3 The page is geared toward complementary and integrative health, but the questions are valuable to ask about any kind of health information online. Examples include:

  • What’s the source of the information?
  • Is the information reviewed by experts?
  • Who runs and pays for the Website?
  • Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
  • Why does the site exist? Is it selling something?3

If you’re looking at YouTube or the internet for health information, why not talk with your doctor? Ask her about trusted websites and recommended resources to help guide your searches. The bottom line, no matter what health information you find online, for AD or otherwise, is to always talk with your doctor about what you’ve read or seen, and ask her any questions you might have about your own condition or its treatment.

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