Want health advice? Don't read a health magazine
MOST of us at some stage will have found ourselves flicking through old magazines while waiting at the hairdresser or doctor's.
There among the fashion, gossip and diets, you come across some health advice or perhaps a Dear Doctor column. Maybe you consider using one of the products discussed. It all seems harmless enough. But how often do you stop to consider just how accurate the advice might be?
People are influenced by what they hear and read in the media, and the quality of that information can affect health choices and behaviours.
Most of us are guilty of consulting "Dr Google" for health matters and many still use traditional print media as a source of health information. We decided to look critically at the range of health advice provided in Australian lifestyle magazines to see what sort of information they were providing to their readers.
We used a tool developed by the now-defunct website Media Doctor Australia that assesses the accuracy of health news stories. The tool used a set of ten criteria that looked both at the advice itself and the way it was presented in the magazine.
These included recommendations to consult a doctor, whether the advice was acceptable and easy to understand, the benefits, harms and costs of recommended treatments, and the evidence behind the advice.
We chose ten magazines, based on their popularity (measured by circulation rates) and target readership. These were, in descending order of circulation, Women's Weekly, Woman's Day, New Idea, Cosmopolitan, Cleo, Women's Health, Dolly, Girlfriend, Men's Health and Good Health.
We bought copies of every edition of these magazines and read them from cover to cover over a six-month period, selecting articles and columns that provided health advice. We then searched research or supporting literature that might align with the advice given along with the qualifications of the writers.
What we found
The range of health topics covered was limited and did not include important contemporary issues such as smoking, obesity or immunisation. Perhaps not surprisingly given the target audience of most of the publications, more than one-third of articles were devoted to female sexual or gynaecological matters.
Vitamins and mineral supplements came next, at 14%, followed by heart disease/blood pressure and cancer, both with 8%. An interesting observation was the close placement of ads for many of the advised interventions, including female genital and urinary products and supplements.
When it came to the results, one title - Dolly - fared much better than the others, while the publications with "health" in their titles fared worst of all. Dolly was so consistent in its advice that we assessed each of its 16 articles as "satisfactory" on each of the ten criteria: a perfect score of 100%, in other words. At the other end of the scale, Women's Health returned an overall rating of only 26% satisfactory.
The health advice in Dolly was all taken from the Dolly Doctor, who in real life is an Australian GP and medical researcher, Associate Professor Melissa Kang. In print, the Dolly Doctor appeared highly authentic and each reader question was handled ethically with sensitivity and clarity. There was no attempt to spruik products, the advice was appropriate and non-judgmental, and there was lots of encouragement to get support from a doctor, counsellor or parents.
Magazines with the word "health" in the title had poor use of evidence and the advice wasn't based on reliable evidence or medical guidelines. There was also a lot of health product placement. The advice was often anonymous, with no indication of the qualification of the person giving it.
Similar results were obtained when assessing each article on just two criteria: whether the advice was presented clearly and meaningfully, and whether it was based on reliable evidence or medical opinion. Again, Dolly received 100%, while Women's Health trailed the field with only 17%.
In between there was a wide spectrum of quality of advice and the evidence underpinning it. Most was soft in terms of meaningful benefit, with anecdotal evidence or general statements such as "a new study has shown".
Audience is important
While health professionals might hope the public seeks its advice from professional channels, the reality is the media is destined to remain an influential source of information for many people. Knowing which magazines are providing good information, which aren't, and - perhaps more importantly - being able to tell good advice from bad, can only help those searching for solutions.
This research is especially important when you consider the readership of Dolly magazine - the "tween" and young teen population. Dolly addressed typical teenage issues such as pimples and emerging sexuality but also tackled significant issues such as depression, anxiety and suicide.
While magazines in waiting rooms may not be an infection risk, their advice is generally poor enough for practitioners to give them the flick - with the exception, we might suggest, of Dolly.
Amanda Wilson is a senior lecturer at University of Newcastle Disclosure statement: Amanda Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.