While the Internet shouldn’t be your primary source of health advice, it’s hard to resist. There is a lot of good, useful health information online. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of garbage, and it’s easy to be led astray by appealingly presented content that isn’t reliable. Prostate cancer is a particularly popular search topic and an area that requires a lot of caution.

There are more than 600,000 YouTube videos that give advice on screening and/or treatment for prostate cancer. According to a new study from New York University, the information in most of them isn’t trustworthy.

For the study, the researchers evaluated the 150 top YouTube videos that came up in a search for “prostate cancer screening” and “prostate cancer treatment,” including the 75 most popular (up to 1.3 million views each). They rated the videos based on quality of information given, such as adherence to established guidelines and evidence-based, understandable and actionable content…evidence of bias, such as favoring specific technology, complementary or alternative medicine or a commercial interest for monetary gain…and popularity. They also took into account information generated in reader comments, since that also gets widely read—and believed by readers.

Results: Most of the videos were out of date. Of the 150 videos evaluated, 115 (77%) contained potentially misinformative or biased content either in the video or comments…and 20% were rated as having a high level of  misinformation. Worst of all, videos with the most misinformation were the most popular!

  • 75% described the benefits of screening and treatment, but only 53% also covered risks.
  • Only 50% promoted shared decision-making between patient and doctor, which is what the current guidelines recommend. The rest of the videos ignored this recommendation.
  • 25% were financially biased toward newer, expensive technology without evidence of superiority over traditional methods.

It’s important to know the risks of prostate cancer screening and treatment—which include false-positive test results and unnecessary additional testing and biopsies from screening…and treatment side effects such as bowel and urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Presenting only benefits while ignoring risks does not offer viewers a balanced view of pros and cons so that they can have an informed discussion with their doctors.

The current guidelines state that screening and treatment decisions should be based on a man’s individual risks versus benefits. This recommendation takes into account that a man’s lifetime risk for prostate cancer is about 11%…that most men who get the disease do not die from it…and that studies have found that routine screening and surgery do more harm than good for many men.

Bottom line: If you’re among the one billion viewers who like to get information from online videos, you don’t have to give that up—but don’t judge how good a video is by its popularity. The study found that the best prostate cancer advice comes from videos put out by national medical organizations. Try…

America Urological Association: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yA4JT3sW5Jg

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm8_OJ9xdIY

American Cancer Society: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N-TYqmuNUk