Popular search engines and apps can lead to plenty of helpful information about important health topics, but they can also lead to confusion or misinformation. (For Health Beat)

Nowadays, practically everyone walks around with an entire medical encyclopedia—and then some—right in their pocket.

With a few clicks they can look up anything. And quite often, they’re researching health topics.

For the most part, said Theresa Osborne, MD, an internist and medical director of Corewell Health, that’s terrific.

Just as the internet has transformed medical practice and education, it’s helped people become better informed.

Still, some are shy about admitting how much they’ve read before arriving in her office.

“Patients can be reluctant to share their internet research with primary care doctors,” Dr. Osborne said. “They make the assumption right away that we’re going to judge them or disapprove.”

Not Dr. Osborne.

She’s grateful for the internet’s many ways of improving medicine, translating into better care for patients.

This includes easier access to electronic records and the rapid adoption of telehealth and robust networks of patient-support communities.

And she’s enthusiastic about internet apps that help drive behavioral change, including those that help with everything from weight loss to mindfulness.

Even so, she said, there are times when the internet works against good health.

Frank misinformation

Plenty of people share health information that is wrong and often harmful—and it’s not just misinformation about diseases and vaccines.

There’s also an explosion of bad information about exercise and nutrition, often linked to companies selling pricey and unproven vitamin and supplement products.

Social media has made this much worse. These platforms’ algorithms reward engagement, not accuracy. That causes people to race to get more clicks, likes and shares. And as a result, false news is 70% more likely to be shared than true stories.

That can lead people to overlook something serious because they’re being misinformed, Dr. Osborne said.

“Or they may get more interventions than are necessary,” she said.

The best defense against these inaccuracies isn’t necessarily less Googling—just smarter searching, she said.

She trusts health information from leading health systems, universities and government organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She’s also a fan of the recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force.

Many professional organizations for providers also have a wealth of great content for patients, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Dermatology.

For food and nutrition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a wealth of evidence-based nutrition and fitness articles.

The Corewell Health Lifestyle Medicine program offers cooking classes and provides recipes, an invaluable resource for creating healthy meals.

Certain disease-specific websites, such as diabetes.org, the American Diabetes Association site, or heart.org, the American Heart Association site, are packed with helpful articles, quizzes, recipes and updates.

Lack of context

It’s easy to find information online that is 100% accurate but still confusing. For example, searching out information on clinical trials for a certain type of cancer may lead to dozens of ongoing studies.

But it may be hard to understand the focus of each. And there may be little context about how each one fits into broader treatment perspectives.

That’s confusing enough when searching sites written for laypeople. But it can be paralyzing when delving into medical journals.

An estimated 30,000 academic journals crank out 2 million journal articles each year.

“Sometimes people find too much information,” Dr. Osborne said. “We call that shotgunning—they get hit with a flurry of information that doesn’t have any particular order. Trying to make sense of it is difficult.”

That changes the interaction between doctors and patients.

“It’s an opportunity for me to translate and provide context around the information,” she said.

Privacy concerns

Thanks to data breaches and scandals involving social media, most people know that internet privacy isn’t guaranteed.

But far fewer are aware that health information stored on smartphone apps—including those relating to fitness, mental health and period trackers—isn’t always protected.

Many people mistakenly believe that information is explicitly guarded by health privacy laws, such as HIPAA.

In reality, some of that information is sold to advertisers, which explains the creepy ways that ads can follow us around from site to site. It’s also often shared with app developers.

That, combined with a user’s search history, can feel close to an invasion of privacy—especially for people who have been reading up on sensitive topics such as depression, addiction or infertility.

Potential conflicts of interest

Many disease education sites appear benign, with no overt sales pitch.

Without digging into fine print, users may be unaware that a site promising general information about dry eye, for example, is funded by a company that sells eye drops.

Again, the information may be perfectly accurate. But it is also designed to encourage people to use those “ask-your-doctor” nudges that fuel marketing efforts.

Dr. Osborne’s ultimate internet advice? Dive into your own research, if it makes you feel informed. But don’t let Dr. Internet make the final diagnosis.

Talk to a health care provider about issues or concerns.