Follow this 5 item checklist to evaluate your online sources and make sure you are getting accurate information about your health.
1. Who is sponsoring the website?
An easily identifiable sponsor is a good sign. Websites should be clear about who is funding the site as well as who is advising or reviewing the information that gets posted. If this information is difficult to find, or the information is not backed by a reputable source, maybe try another website.
Government websites are often very reliable and are easily distinguished by the .gov web address. Educational institutions (.edu) and professional organizations (.org) are also likely to have good information, although always look for additional resources that back up their claims. Commercial websites are indicated by a .com web address and this most often indicates sponsorship from a private company, so only trust information on these sites that is both accurate and unbiased toward the sponsoring business’ profitability.
2. How often is the site updated?
Health research and its findings are constantly being updated, so try and look for information that has been published or at least reviewed within the past five years. The latest revision or publishing date should be visible, and usually found at the bottom of the page.
3. Does the site offer facts rather than opinion?
This is not always an easy distinction. Look for citations of primary source research literature to confirm the information being conveyed is evidence-based. If opinions are stated, they should be from qualified professionals that can speak with authority in the field rather than opinions of the journalist, sponsoring organization, or other non-qualified and potentially biased source. Some commercial websites can give accurate information, but others are greatly biased in efforts to sell a specific product. Be sure the facts presented are supported by other reputable sources.
4. Who is the intended audience?
It should be clear whether the information is intended to reach the general public or a healthcare professional. Articles written for healthcare professionals may be more technical, but also are less likely to be inaccurate and biased. It is a good sign if a website has separate sections for the general public and for health care providers. This shows that the research presented is openly available for scrutiny from trained professionals, yet a more accessible version is also available for health care consumers.
5. Does the information apply to you?
This is perhaps the hardest question of them all. Internet searches are often most effective for patients with previously diagnosed conditions. Once you have been diagnosed, you can use information to understand your condition better and make use of diet and/or lifestyle suggestions that will enhance your quality of life.If you have not yet been formally diagnosed be wary of the dangers of self-diagnosis. Many conditions result in general symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and fatigue; however rare and life-threatening conditions as well as benign illnesses may share these symptoms and it can be difficult to discern the true cause of the symptoms you are experiencing.
Using the internet as a resource to treat non-emergent conditions at home can save you money and help avoid taking unnecessary medications. Examples of conditions that can be safely treated at home would be dandruff and the common cold. More chronic or severe symptoms should be discussed with your healthcare provider and only supplemented, not replaced, by information from online resources.
If you are part of an online community or support group, you may find that many of these criteria do not apply these forum-style websites, and that is for good reason! Support groups and facebook groups are important in forming community and connecting people sharing common experiences, but they are not reviewed or scrutinized for accuracy. If you hear of an intriguing health care suggestion in an online community be sure to double check the information with a website that stands up to our 5 criteria or talk to your doctor before implementing any treatments.
When reading health information online be wise and follow our tips to ensure you are reading from reputable sources. Know when you can make an educated decision and when you need to reach out to your health care provider- we are here to help!
Article adapted from the Medical Library Association
For Health Consumers and Patients. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html
Scullard, P., Peacock, C., & Davies, P. (2010, August). Googling children's health: Reliability of medical advice on the internet. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20371593