Imagine you’re looking for a treatment to reduce that sagging jowl or to minimize those annoying love handles. Or perhaps you want to treat a more serious medical condition such as diabetes or thyroid problems. A board certification or a recommendation by a medical organization seems like a smart thing to look for. But can you really trust these entities?

There are plenty of organizations that offer “certifications” to physicians for profit. They require little of the practitioner besides a fat payment. Some are even predatory. Foreign medical graduates are common targets because they don’t always understand our licensing procedures. Other physicians buy these certifications hoping to sound more impressive than they actually are.

Some “medical” organizations are created in an attempt to lend legitimacy to alternative medical treatments. By creating an official sounding name they hope to build authority and trust in the eye of the public.

In addition, there are organizations designed solely for the purpose of marketing a product. It sounds more legit if the (entirely fictional) American Society of Collagen Restoration recommends your skin cream. What you may not know is the ASCR members also function as the skin cream company’s management team. Your purchase will simply line their designer pockets.

Other organizations are created to advance a political point-of-view. They sound as if the weight of the medical community is behind them. A group of doctors formed the American College of Pediatricians to oppose the adoption of children by gay parents. This organization won’t disclose the number of physicians who have joined, but estimates put it at around 200 members. The name sounds similar to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the organization that represents some 60,000 pediatricians. But they are not the same.

How do you decide which of these impressive-sounding memberships and certifications are for real? A few tips will help you sort out how trustworthy these designations are.

For medical certifications, visit the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). This organization maintains the standards for physician certification. Individuals certified by one of these boards have passed extensive testing in their specialty.

For medical organizations, look at the American Medical Association (AMA) member organizations. These members are widely recognized as the representative bodies for the various medical specialties.

If a certification is not found on ABMS or an organization is not listed with the AMA, it’s not automatically illegitimate. However, it does suggest a little more digging is wise. Ask some questions before you trust them with your health.

From where does the organization receive its funding? Always follow the money. If an organization is industry-funded, its recommendations are questionable.

Does it promote a specific treatment or political agenda? Medical doctors who are looking for the best interest of patients let the evidence guide them to conclusions, not the other way around. If recommendations are based on a predetermined viewpoint, the organization isn’t guided by evidence.

Is it marketing a product? Legitimate medical organizations don’t market health products. This is a sure sign of a made up “Academy” or “Institute.”

What are its certification requirements? I can form a board tomorrow and certify myself in any field I want. That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. A certification for any type of medical practice should have stringent requirements that go beyond the ability to sign a check.

Does the organization promote alternative medical theories that are not accepted by the mainstream? I can’t keep you from pursuing alternative medicine. However, I can warn you about it. Medical treatments that have evidence to suggest they work are no longer considered alternative. They are embraced by the mainstream. Does it mean there are no alternative treatments that work? No. It does mean we don’t have evidence that supports their worth. Tread carefully in these waters.

It’s easy to be duped by official sounding boards, academies, and institutes. But, as with every aspect of healthcare, a wise consumer investigates and evaluates the evidence. A fancy name or mark of authority shouldn’t replace that diligence.