LGBT Health Awareness Week 2019

The last week of March has been LGBT Health Awareness Week since 2003. We have explored some of the barriers to healthcare for the transgender community in previous blog posts, but it remains important to bring awareness to the unique healthcare needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the health disparities that continue to affect the lives of so many Americans.

 

Experts report that LGBT people often avoid seeking out medical care or refrain from “coming out” to their healthcare provider. This compromises an entire community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals who are at increased risk for several health threats when compared to heterosexual or cisgender peer groups: Gay men are at higher risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; lesbians are less likely to get cancer screenings; transgender individuals are among the least likely to have health insurance along with risks from hormone replacement and atypical cancers. Even as youths, LGBT people are at higher risk of violence, depression, substance abuse, homelessness, and other suicide-related behaviors.

 

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) had helped over 10 million Americans gain insurance during the Obama administration, including many LGBT people. The ACA prohibited health insurance marketplaces from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The 2015 Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges recognizing marriage between gay and lesbian couples throughout the United States led to more married couples to access their spouse’s health insurance.

 

The Trump administration has since dismantled many protections for equal access to care for LGBT people. Shortly after Trump took office, regulations to ban discrimination in Medicare and Medicaid were stopped and the White House declined to enforce the ACA’s anti-discrimination mandate. Throughout his first two years, senior advisors for LGBT health were reassigned to less effective positions and questions regarding sexual orientation were removed from federal surveys. In late 2017, President Trump fired the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) which concerned advocates believe is part of an “effort to erase LGBTQ people.” The mass dismissal followed six members resigning the previous summer, citing the Trump administration’s apparent disinterest in helping the HIV/AIDS community.

In January 2018, it was announced the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would form a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division that would functionally allow doctors to refuse treatment for those that go against their religious beliefs — further limiting access to care and undermining the civil rights, health, and well-being of LGBT people, women seeking reproductive health services, and others.  Since last year, HHS websites have removed pages that hosted information on LGBT health and related links, and changed language regarding the ACA’s ban on sex discrimination — specifically removing language about gender identity protections and transgender medical care. Trump’s HHS reportedly considered defining gender as binary, “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with,” denying the existence of transgender and intersex people, in defiance of the scientific and medical evidence embraced by the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association. Additionally, the Trump administration eliminated references to inclusion and protection from discriminatory housing practices in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s mission statement, and filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” does not protect individuals on the basis of gender identity, threatening transgender people’s right to be free from unequal treatment.

In President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, he asked Congress for a commitment to eliminate new HIV transmissions by 2030. This month, the administration began filling seats on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS — over a year after disbanding the group — and released a proposed budget that included $291 million for the Ending the HIV Epidemic plan in 2020 but also called for cutting 12% from HHS funding. The budget proposal also calls for massive $1.5 trillion cuts to Medicare and Medicaid which covers 25%-40% of Americans diagnosed with HIV, respectively, while also cutting $45 million from the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program which provides grants to communities for projects to address housing needs for those living with HIV/AIDS. The impact of cuts to public insurance programs and the safety net would not only negate many of the benefits gained from the addition of the HIV funding that has been proposed but could halt the progress made toward defeating the virus that disproportionately affects LGBT individuals.

 

The LGBT community continues to rank among the most underserved populations in terms of healthcare. Homophobia/transphobia and stigma can negatively impact one’s ability to receive suitable care. Over 27% of transgender people in the U.S. report being denied healthcare. Mental health is a major concern for LGBT individuals often dealing with physical or emotional abuse, body dysmorphia, depression, or feeling unsafe at school or work, and there are still areas of the United States where finding sympathetic and appropriate help can be prohibitively difficult. If you are looking for a LGBT-friendly medical center, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has an interactive map with locations of over 1600 healthcare facilities in the United States. The HRC also has information on finding insurance for transgender-related healthcare, which can be a challenge for many transgender people even after the ACA.

 

To further help those in need, NeedyMeds has a growing list of programs in our Diagnosis-Based Assistance database for transgender/gender non-conforming people that offer various forms of assistance such as financial aid or legal services. We also list academic scholarships available for LGBT youths looking to continue their education. NeedyMeds’ unique crowdfunding platform HEALfundr is also available for individuals trying to raise funds for their transition and other members of the LGBT community to receive appropriate healthcare. For more information, call our toll-free helpline at 1-800-503-6897 (open 9am to 5pm ET, Monday through Friday).

Poison Prevention & Medication Safety

Poisoning is the number one cause of injury-related death in the U.S.. National Poison Prevention Week,  sponsored by the National Poisoning Prevention Council during the third week in March, promotes poison prevention tips and the free emergency services provided by poison control centers, including the Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222. Text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your smartphone.

In the time it takes to read the information above, at least two people will call a poison control center. That’s one person every 14 seconds, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS).

America’s poison control centers managed over 2.6 million encounters in 2017, of which 2.1 million were human exposure cases. And while human exposure calls to poison control showed a 2% decline from 2016, health care facility (HCF) human exposure cases increased by over 3% in this same period, representing almost a quarter of all human exposure calls. Calls with more serious medical outcomes have increased by nearly 4.5% every year since 2000.

Although young children (younger than 6 years) comprise a disproportionate percentage of the cases, poisoning affects ALL age groups, from infants to seniors. Most poisonings occur in one and two year olds, but poisonings in teens and adults are more serious.

 

The Most Common Causes of Poisoning

Cosmetics and personal care products lead the list of the most common substances implicated in pediatric exposures. Cleaning substances and pain medications follow. These exposures are nearly always unintentional.

The most common substances implicated in pediatric poisonings.

For adults, pain medications lead the list of the most common substances implicated in poison exposures. Sedatives and sleeping medications, antidepressants, and cardiovascular medications follow. Often, these exposures are intentional.

A list of the the most common substances implicated in adult poisonings.

 

Poison Prevention & Medication Safety Tips

A poison is any substance that can harm someone if it is used in the wrong way, by the wrong person, or in the wrong amount – including prescription and nonprescription medications.

The following BeMedWise medication safety tips are intended to help you prevent accidental poisonings We encourage you to keep them in mind and share them with others.

 

  1. Ask houseguests to store purses, briefcases, or bags that contain medicines up high, away and out of sight from your children. The same rule applies when your children are visiting a friend or relative’s home.
  2. Buy products in child-resistant packaging whenever possible. But remember, child-resistant is not childproof, and is designed only to keep children away from the product for a short time before a parent notices.
  3. Use child-resistant packaging properly by closing the container tightly after use.
  4. If you think someone has been poisoned, call 1-800-222-1222 to reach your local poison center. Text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your smartphone. This national toll-free number works anywhere in the U.S. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  5. Read medicine labels before use and follow directions exactly. Make sure you are not taking more than one product at a time with the same active ingredient.
  6. Tell children what medicine is and why you must be the one to give it to them.
  7. Never call medicine “candy” to get a child to take it.
  8. Never leave medicine out on a kitchen counter or at a sick child’s bedside.
  9. Always turn the light on when giving or taking medicine. Check the dosage every time.
  10. Put on your glasses to read the label when you need to take a medicine so that you know you have the correct amount of the right medicine.
  11. Never take more than the prescribed amount of medicine.
  12. Never “borrow” a friend’s medicine or take old medicines.
  13. Tell your doctor what other medicines you are taking so you can avoid harmful or dangerous drug interactions. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicine, vitamins, and herbal products.
  14. Clean out the medicine cabinet periodically, and safely dispose of medicines that are expired or no longer needed. Refer to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for advice on safe disposal of unused or expired medicine.. For information on safe disposal of needles used outside of healthcare settings, visit SafeNeedleDisposal.org or call 1-800-643-1643 from 9am-5pm Eastern Time. Email inquiries: info@safeneedledisposal.org.
  15. Always relock the safety cap on a medicine bottle. If the medicine has a locking cap that turns, twist it until you hear the click or you cannot twist any more.
  16. Don’t remove medicine from a child-resistant package and put it in another type of easy-to-open container.
  17. When taking or giving medicines, don’t put the next dose on the counter or a table where a child could reach them.
  18. Use only the measuring device (dosing cup, dosing syringe, or dropper) that is included with your medicine. If a measuring device is not included or you do not receive one, ask for one from your pharmacist. Don’t substitute another item, such as a kitchen spoon.
  19. If you don’t understand the instructions on the medicine label, or how to use the dosing device (dosing cup, dosing syringe, or dropper), talk to your pharmacist or doctor before using the medicine.
  20. Never share or sell your prescription medicines.
  21. Only buy prescription and over-the-counter medicines from a legitimate pharmacy, including online pharmacies. Counterfeit medications are a serious problem in the U.S. and are usually made with harmful ingredients that can kill you. Learn more at the Partnership for Safe Medications and How to Buy Medicines Safely From an Online Pharmacy (FDA).
  22. Keep medicines in their original bottles or containers whenever possible. If you transfer medicines to another container, such as a pill minder or organizer, store them in a place that is too high for a child to reach or see, since these containers are often not child-resistant. If possible, ensure the storage location has a safety latch.
  23. Some medicines are dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Consult your doctor or pharmacist before drinking alcohol if you are taking a prescription or over-the-counter medicine.
  24. Talk to your doctor before taking any vitamins or herbal supplements. They can interact with your medicine.

 

Resources for Taking Action

Free Printable Resources Library – A Be MedWise collection of health education and medicine safety brochures, tools and tips.

Downloadable Communications Toolkit Take Action to Prevent Opioid Misuse and Abuse by informing patients, their families, caregivers, and others how to manage these serious medications, keep them out of reach from children, family and visitors and then dispose of unused opioids correctly so they don’t get into the wrong hands or damage the environment.

Resources for Action – From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Allied Against Opioid Abuse, (AAOA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Surgeon General, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), and more.

Your Medicine: Be Smart. Be Safe. – You can learn more about how to take medicines safely by reading this guide. It answers common questions about getting and taking medicines and has handy forms that will help you keep track of information. Keep this guide with your medicines in case you have any questions, concerns, or worries.

Medical Tourism: Travel Abroad to Save on Healthcare

The following blog post is an American’s first-hand experience of traveling to Mexico to save money on healthcare procedures. Names and exact locations have been changed/omitted, though the details are all true and have been verified by us at NeedyMeds.

 

It is no secret that healthcare in the United States can be prohibitively expensive. Because of this, many Americans opt to get their healthcare elsewhere.

According to a 2015 report by the US International Trade Commission (USITC), between 150,000 and 320,000 Americans travel abroad every year to receive medical care. For uninsured Americans, the costs are often less than half what it would be in the states — even when including travel expenses.

Americans covered by insurance can benefit from getting healthcare abroad as well. Most insurance plans don’t cover dental work, cosmetic surgery, or prescription drugs. These routine treatments and procedures can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in the U.S.

 

I have needed dental work completed for most of my life, with the main factor keeping me from finishing it as an adult being the price. I had unfinished work from my childhood that left me embarrassed and in pain. After getting a number of extractions more than a year ago that cost over $4000 by itself, my goal to save for the restoration was more than I could manage.

This is not to say I hadn’t saved any money, just that it was many times what I had managed to put aside for all the work I still needed done—all of which is needed up front when paying in the U.S. My options were to continue to wait and save and remain in pain and discomfort, or to find a more affordable way to get the dental work I needed.

My parents have recently retired to Mexico. Their community is served by a dentist who my mother would start going to, and who she would later refer to me after she saved thousands of dollars on her own restoration work. My partner and I planned a trip for early 2019.

 

The dentist (we’ll call them Dr. R) studied dentistry in Mexico City and had further advanced training at Tufts, Harvard, and other U.S. universities. The Mexican government subsidizes his practice due to the advanced training he’s received in U.S. schools. With this funding Dr. R is able to buy top-tier equipment that dental practices in the U.S. would often need to make numerous referrals for their patients to access.

Dr. R can make their own temporary crowns, does orthodontistry, and other cosmetic work that patients are usually sent away from their primary care provider to receive. The locals in the community are often not charged for their care, for which Dr. R is able to provide due to the cash that comes in from foreign patients.

 

My first dentist appointment in Mexico was brief; a few x-rays, imprints of my teeth, some analysis, and making a plan for the next ten days I would be in the area. It’s worth noting here that dental x-rays can cost between $25 and $250 each in the U.S. I was not charged for them or the first hour-long appointment at all.

The plan was:

  • I needed seven root canals and seven crowns for my top teeth. In the U.S. this would cost $400-$5000 for each tooth. I was initially quoted $300 for each root canal and $500 for each crown.
  • I needed five fillings in my bottom teeth. In the U.S. this costs between $90-$300 per filling; I was quoted $120 for everything.

 

Dr. R questioned why doctors back home had told me my teeth needed to be extracted, indicating the root and bone was still healthy and that they could be saved with less extreme procedures without the need for future expensive implants. He showed me my x-rays compared to those that required extraction, and it was disappointing to see that mine did look markedly healthier. Even the teeth that had been extracted looked healthier than the ones I hadn’t — I had elected not to extract them sooner because they were front teeth, and I couldn’t afford to replace them at the time. I chose to feel relieved that I was saving what I have left.

 

The seven root canals were the following morning. Dr. R had called in an endodontist for the procedure, and it took a little less than four hours. I had brought the $2100 that I was quoted ($300 times seven root canals), but was surprised when I was told that the root canals only ended up being $200 each — $1400 for seven root canals, and Dr. R took the extra $700 I had as an advance payment for the crowns which he assured me would arrive before my flight ten days later. I was given antibiotics for a budding infection (which meant I couldn’t drink alcohol for the remainder of my trip) and painkillers; I was not charged for either.

It may be worth noting that there were no fewer than eight “farmacias” within a five minute walk of my parent’s community. Medications are not regulated the same way in Mexico, and prescriptions can be bought by anyone with the money for them [NeedyMeds’ Note: We do not advocate for the use of non-USA regulated pharmacies, especially mail-order].

 

Seven root canals are far from comfortable, though after the procedure the pain was minimal. The next morning I returned for the temporary caps to be put on, which (including the time it took Dr. R to make the caps) took a little more than four hours. At the end of this appointment, the doctor told me he wouldn’t be charging me for filling the teeth on the bottom, and that I only owed an additional $2800 after the $2100 I had already paid.

The doctor assured me that if I couldn’t pay the balance for a few months it would be just fine (even though he knew I was leaving the country in a little over a week). This was actually under the amount I had saved and I was shocked to have anything left over.

 

I had almost a week before my next appointment for the bottom teeth, and the following day would be when the porcelain caps were scheduled to be put on — just one day before I flew back home to New England. There was swelling in my gums that subsided over time and my discomfort mostly waned. I couldn’t drink alcohol, but I had lots of gelato.

 

One of the smaller things the dentist tried to help me was related to a dog attack I suffered late 2017 (I work in the pet industry), as they noticed a tooth was constantly rubbing against some scar tissue on the inside of my lip. Dr. R offered to elect to reshape/contour the tooth slightly, which would reduce its rubbing on the scarred area of my inner lip. This procedure regularly costs $50-$300 per tooth in the U.S.; I was not charged anything more than we had previously agreed.

At first, it was much more comfortable not rubbing against the scars but as the days went on it became more and more sensitive. By the weekend I could barely breathe through my mouth without the pain in the sensitive tooth becoming unbearable.

The following appointment consisted of a cleaning and five fillings, including the one that was now sensitive. This was probably the most uncomfortable of the appointments for me, as I have always had a resistance to novocaine, though it only lasted an hour. I spent the rest of the evening resting after taking a prescription dose of ibuprofen.

 

My last appointment was the next morning for my permanent caps. The appointment lasted two hours, during which three bridges with the seven crowns were put in. Other than some soreness in my gums, it was the best they had felt in a long time. Everything looked and felt good on my return trip; it was the first time I can remember being able to chew on both sides of my mouth pain-free.

 

If I were trying to get comparable work done in my home country of the United States, I would have to be prepared to spend at least $20,000-$25,000 — easily more. I spent under $5000 in Mexico; a little more when you factor in airfare and the costs of living in a foreign country for almost two weeks. I spent a total of 12 hours in a dentist chair. I was not charged for any x-rays, prescription medications, or any office visit fees.

It is undeniable that I saved thousands of dollars on my dental care, but also that I am fortunate enough to be able to afford even this. Countless Americans need the kind of dental work that I did, and are not fortunate enough to have family abroad or be able to afford hundreds of dollars in airfare alone.

 

I cannot speak to the practices of other dentists in Mexico — I imagine Dr. R was very generous with his services and I wouldn’t know if not charging for x-rays or medications is common practice. Based on my experience, and lacking any overhauls of the U.S. healthcare system, I would likely go back to Mexico for any further dental work I may need.

 

NeedyMeds does not have any information about resources that help patients access healthcare outside of the U.S. or its territories, nor do we endorse medical tourism — anyone considering traveling abroad for medical care of any kind should carefully investigate the care provider and/or the hospital providing the healthcare services — but we do have information on free/low-cost clinics and assistance programs that help with the costs of prescriptions and healthcare throughout the United States and its territories. Visit needymeds.org or call our toll-free helpline at 1-800-503-6897.

For those considering seeking healthcare outside of the United States, Joint Commission International (JCI) accredits hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare providers around the world and is considered the gold standard in global healthcare.

Social Justice & Healthcare

Today is World Day of Social Justice, when we promote efforts to tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion, and unemployment.

Social justice is the concept that all individuals deserve equal rights and opportunities — including the right to health. Even in 2019, inequities remain in healthcare that are avoidable, unnecessary, and unjust. These inequities are the result of established policies and practices that maintain an unequal concentration of money, power, resources, and perceived value within society among communities based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, country of origin, or disability.

 

Racism, homophobia/transphobia, and misogyny are all insidious forms of bigotry that have long-reaching effects into healthcare. Over 30% of medical expenses faced by communities of color can be associated with health inequities, and are more likely to be affected by conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/gender non-conforming individuals often report avoiding seeking out medical care or refrain from “coming out” to their healthcare provider. Women can face difficulty accessing health care depending on where in the country they are, being believed or taken seriously by healthcare professionals, can have their bodily autonomy questioned when seeking certain services, and report forgoing healthcare services more than men.

Studies have shown that healthcare professionals may harbor unconscious prejudice towards certain groups, leading to poorer communication and lower quality of care. Discrimination and implicit bias against individuals has been associated with higher rates of psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. Experiences of violence and victimization are frequent for people of color, LGBT people, and women and can have long-lasting effects on individuals and their community. Negative experiences with healthcare providers can also discourage those in need from seeking help in the future.

 

For many, being excluded from access to affordable healthcare can be a barrier in itself to getting a job and escaping poverty. Homeless individuals face significant barriers when trying to access healthcare, and are at high risk for pneumonia, infections, symptoms from exposure, mental illness, and substance abuse. Lack of affordable healthcare on its own can contribute to homelessness. For families and individuals who struggle to pay rent, a serious illness or disability can lead to a downward spiral into homelessness; one could lose their job due to inability to work, deplete their savings to pay for healthcare, and eventually be evicted from their homes with reduced or no income.

Immigrants face particular health concerns, yet access healthcare services less than individuals born in the United States. This could partly stem from the changing policy that could allow immigrants that access public benefits to be deported. Undocumented immigrant children who have been separated from their parents/families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy face an increased risk of profound physical and emotional health problems. Thousands of children have been ripped away from their parents with little to no method or plan to ever reunite many of the families.

 

NeedyMeds’ mission is educate and empower patients in need, with a vision of affordable healthcare for all. Our mission is tied inextricably to social justice and the endeavor of abolishing inequalities.

NeedyMeds has almost 100 disease-specific resource sites for many conditions — Diagnosis Information Pages — including those that disproportionately affect people of color. Our website has a database of over 17,000 free, low cost, or sliding scale clinics, more than 6000 of which offer women’s health services including almost 500 Planned Parenthood locations. Search your ZIP code for clinics in your area, and find Women’s Health in Services under the Details heading to find free or low-cost medical attention. There are also nearly 6000 free/low-cost clinics listed that offer mental health services. NeedyMeds has a growing list of programs in our Diagnosis-Based Assistance database for transgender/gender non-conforming people that offer various forms of assistance such as financial aid or legal services to LGBT individuals who experience barriers in accessing healthcare. The free NeedyMeds Drug Discount Card can be used by anyone to help save money on their prescribed medication — even over-the-counter medicine — regardless of immigration status. The card is available physically via mail, in a printable form, or the as a smartphone app for Apple and Android devices. For more help finding information, call our toll-free helpline Monday-Friday 9am-5pm Eastern Time at 1-800-503-6897.

Online Health Information: Not Always Doctor-Approved

“Can Parasitic Worms Cure Seasonal Allergies?”

“New Study Shows Too Much of This Breakfast Staple Will Literally Kill You”

“Here’s Why Sitting is Worse for Your Health than Smoking”

You  — or someone you know — is bound to see headlines like these every day. After all, looking up health information remains one of the most popular internet activities. But as the saying goes, you can’t believe everything you read.

Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, last year told The Atlantic that “of all the categories of fake news, health news is the worst. There’s more bad health news out there than there is in any other category.”

A newspaper advertisement for false "cancer-curing" claims

There’s no such thing as a miracle cure. Photo by Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether it’s viral stories that dandelion weed cures cancer, bogus health advice falsely attributed to the Mayo Clinic, advertisements masquerading as news, or outright fake medical news, scammers have found all sorts of new hacks to earn clicks and trick readers with sensationalized content.

Below I want to dive deeper into two recent examples of popular health stories that misrepresent the underlying science. I’ll point out where they went wrong, then leave you with some tricks of your own to help you weed the bad information from the good.

Example 1: Can taking hormones cut belly fat?

Last March, CNN and other news outlets reported that taking hormones significantly reduces belly fat in postmenopausal women ages 50-80. The story was based on a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Little did readers know the story had misrepresented the original study’s findings — a not uncommon problem. Journalists failed to mention that the “significant” fat loss amounted to just two ounces.

Close-up of a woman's waist with measuring tape around it.

Weight-loss headlines are popular but often misleading.
Photo by Matt Madd, via Costculator

Worse, there was no mention of the negative side effects of hormone treatment like bloating, breast tenderness, mood changes, and nausea.

Are these side effects worth the small losses in body fat? For many people, they aren’t. But you’d never know from the headlines.

Example 2: Is fluoridated water bad?

Harder to spot are groups using poor science to support their beliefs.

Based on a recent article in Environmental International, ScienceDaily reported that higher levels of fluoride exposure during pregnancy will increase the odds that their children will have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The anti-fluoride crowd claims that this is yet more proof that putting fluoride in drinking water is harmful.

A U.S. Air Force service member pours herself a glass of tap water from a sink faucet

Water fluoridation is a popular boogeyman among conspiracy theorists.
Photo by Airman st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal, via Cannon Air Force Base

Unlike the hormone therapy example, it was the original study’s authors who inflated the merit of their results. The study was not done well enough to support their claimanother common problem. The most obvious flaw was that, despite saying that higher intake from fluoridated water resulted in a higher risk of ADHD, the fluoride intake of the women was not known.

I certainly wouldn’t switch pregnant women to bottled water based on this study.

How to spot a fake health news article

Read more than the headline

Remember that news sites are trying to attract readers, so they are more likely to cover eye-catching topics. When reporting research studies, that often means news outlets look to scoop stories on groundbreaking studies that have yet to be confirmed, or less reliable observational studies promoting inflated conclusions.

A “clickbait” headline lures you in but fails to deliver promises. Unfortunately, these are all too common in health news reporting.

Close-up of a hand clicking a computer mouse.

Beware the clickbait headline!
Photo by Marvin Tolentino, via Unsplash

So if a headline grabs your interest and it may apply to you or someone you know, be sure to read the whole article. Look for details within that support the sensational headline.

For example, the ScienceDaily article above reports that fluoride intake was estimated by measuring fluoride levels in urine that had been stored for up to 12 years! That is quite a stretch, and reason to be skeptical of the findings.

Look for indicators of trust

How do you know if you can trust what you’re reading?

Make sure the news site is reputable and clearly lists the author of the news report, along with their experience. Articles written by a science or health reporter trained to understand medical findings are most likely to get and report the gist of the study. It is also important to know about the editors responsible for the content and owners of the website.     

Do a little digging to see if the journal and author(s) have a good reputation and whether or not the article has been peer-reviewed by specialists. Reputable journals are usually published or sponsored by a scholarly society, professional association, or university academic department.

A man stands apart at a rally holding a handmade sign that reads "In Peer Review We Trust."

Who doesn’t love a good peer review?
Photo by Sarahmirk, via Wikimedia Commons

A handy list of peer-reviewed journals can be found at OMICS International.

Find out what other outlets are saying

Sometimes a supporting or more detailed news report can be found on other credible news services. In the case of the CNN headline, MedPage Today provided crucial details showing the small change in stomach fat that CNN failed to report.

Exploring more than one source is especially important for groundbreaking news. If it’s truly important, many news outlets will be reporting it.

A banner, attached to a stick, that reads "Explore."

Explore what other news outlets are saying.
Photo by Andrew Neel, via Unsplash

Another strategy is to search for news reports about studies looking at the same issue so that you can compare.

It is not uncommon for news reports to disagree, even if they are reporting the same research. In fact, controversy and diverse opinions are usually a sign that the reporter has done their homework.  

Additional commentary about the article by expert medical professionals or organizations can also improve credibility. An added benefit may be to increase how well you understand the news report.

Make sure the research is reliable

You definitely want to be reading news based on good research. But knowing what constitutes “good” research can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a background in science. Here are just a few clues that the research is relevant to you:

  • the study in question was done on humans, not animals
  • the benefit to patients is not too small to offset complications and side effects (e.g. the CNN fat-loss article)
  • the treatment is something people can actually do or afford. For example, most people can’t move to Arizona to relieve allergy symptoms
Close-up of a black mouse being held by a person in white lab gear and purple latex gloves.

Studies on mice are not the same as studies on humans.
Photo by Understanding Animal Research, via Wikimedia Commons

Be wary of industry-sponsored trials, such as pharmaceutical or medical device companies, as they are more likely to be biased and show positive results. For example, the study about hormones and belly fat was partially funded by a pharmaceutical company that makes these hormones.

Also be wary if the authors don’t mention the flaws in their study. If they do, those should also be presented in the news report.

Avoid these common signs of fake health news

  • The site or news article endorses specific treatments, products, or caregivers
  • There are links to an online store selling these items
  • The news article only quotes people who agree with the conclusion
  • Only positive research results or specific points of view are discussed.
  • A cause is being advocated
  • It sounds too good to be true, because unfortunately there are few quick fixes and no miracle cures

Final word

So whether you’re reading medical news articles for general interest or because you want to be better informed about your healthcare, you can use these suggestions to help you get more out of them without being fooled.

Since you will likely not be able to evaluate articles like a medical professional, try not to make any rash decisions based on a news report. Before doing anything you should always discuss any “breakthrough” that directly concerns your medical care with your provider.