Who is that ‘health expert’ you’ve been following?

Dr. Alok Patel is In The Know’s wellness contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more.

I’ve recently read articles on the science of vinyl records, proper pour-over coffee techniques and the best martial arts movies available on Amazon Prime. Welcome to a few of my pandemic inquiries. (Granted, I’ve always been a huge fan of martial arts flicks — try me.)

But before I emotionally invested in these articles, I researched the authors; if an article has the potential to influence me, it’s a mandatory practice. While most reputable platforms verify an author’s credentials, there is no inherent quality control on social media or blogs.

Let’s apply this situation to the health space: How many times have you come across a social media account by someone claiming to be an expert in nutrition, wellness, fitness, chronic disease or hormones? I recently searched #healthexpert on Instagram and found 20,000 posts, with content ranging from dietary guidance to supplement endorsements. Anyone can throw around the “health expert” term and give out information or peddle products.

But are you ready to separate the pros from the quacks? If you come across questionable health advice online, run through this quick sequence to verify the author’s credibility.

Identify The Author’s Intent

I previously wrote about ways to spot misinformation, and to reiterate: an imposter-like tone or sales pitch is a red flag. I urge people to raise a skeptical eyebrow if a health professional is outright selling a product, promoting a political agenda or pushing an unverified conspiracy theory.  

Be sure to also look for any disclaimers in an article or post. A financially incentivized health professional may be bias in their recommendations. This doesn’t necessarily disqualify someone’s expertise, but it warrants the validation process.

Look At The Author’s Credentials

Find out if the health care professional behind the content completed necessary training in the specialty in question. This will help you quickly tell the difference between someone who, for example, injected botox without an appropriate license and someone who is board-certified and completed the training required to administer injectable cosmetic treatments.

Anyone giving out health advice online should have their credentials, licenses, and/or board-certifications listed in their biography. It’s shady if this information is not readily accessible.

Look Beyond The Fancy “Doctor” Title

Someone who refers to themselves as a doctor could be a neurosurgeon, physical therapist, pharmacist, naturopath, chiropractor, epidemiologist, dentist or anyone else who completed a doctorate program in literally any subject. You need context. If you notice a social media handle with a “Dr.” in front of it, find out what that individual has a doctorate in before you trust the content.

Sadly, having a doctorate does not immediately qualify someone as trustworthy. Some people with medical doctorates are a part of the conspiracy theory-promoting group America’s Frontline Doctors. One naturopathic doctor got in trouble with the FDA for selling a bogus coronavirus cure. Not only that, but an osteopathic doctor recently urged people to get rid of their masks and go hug people amidst a pandemic.

(It’s worth noting many reputable health care professionals have degrees other than doctorates. I’m focusing on this here because some dubious individuals use the title as a cloak.)

Conduct Your Own Background Search

If someone references an institution, hospital or clinic in their bio, find out if they actually have an up-to-date affiliation. You’ll also be able to verify if someone is still in training, or if they’ve been treating patients or researching for years. I have personally come across accounts of people claiming to treat patients when in reality, they were still in school or not practicing. 

Look up other content by the author. If you notice any advice or recommendations that appear off-base, compare them with other credible sources. In your internet sleuthing, you may find an “expert” has been involved in controversy or legal action, which may compromise their credibility.

Ultimately, the phrase “health expert” is a shortened way of saying “a credentialed individual who underwent the appropriate training to back up whatever advice they’re giving out”. If you, for example, run into a “spine health expert” online, ask yourself if they are among the most highly-qualified professionals to be talking about the human spine. Would you draft them to your fantasy spine-health all-star team?

Follower counts, pretty graphics and blue checks do not mean nearly as much as integrity, transparency and credibility.

Before you modify your health behavior based on an online article, do your due diligence and vet the author. I personally did just this before heating my water to exactly 205 degrees for pour-overs and filling my Amazon Watch playlist with Gordon Liu movies.

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