Featured / Healthy Living / May 5, 2016

Deciphering Health Information on the Internet

By Charles Platkin, PhD

You wake up one morning and see that you have an unidentified rash on your hand.  What’s one of the first things you do?  Probably, if you’re like most Americans, you go to your smartphone or computer and start searching for what disease you have.  The statistics are staggering – nearly 75 percent of Americans are looking online for health information.  As Mark Twain said: “Be careful about reading health books.”  The reality is you can’t always trust what you read.  Here are a few tips from a variety of sources (e.g. the Medical Library Association, NIH’s US National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus and a few other reliable sources) to help make sure your future health searches yield more accurate results.

Who Owns or is Responsible for the Website and It’s Content?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who or what entity created the website or is responsible for the information.
  • Does the site have an email address, or is the only way to contact the organization through a web or contact form? Make sure their contact information is accurate and detailed.
  • Who owns the site? Is there an “about” or “about us” section. Is it a not-for profit, and, if so,(who is funding? Tthere are some non-profits that are funded by specific interest groups or corporations. Is it a corporation? If so, what kind—hospital, university, etc..?
  • Does it explain the mission and purpose of the website? Is there an address?  If you look it up on a search engine “street image,” what does it show?
  • Why was the website created? What’s its purpose and what do they gain? Is it educational? Corporate? Trying to sell a product or service?
  • Does the “About Us” section list names of individuals associated with the site? If there is an or individuals identified what are their credentials (Ph.D., Masters – and from what university? Is it accredited)?
  • Is it clear who they are and what they do for the site? You might even do a search for that person’s name – see what comes up.
  • Are the individuals involved with the site backed by a known non-profit organization (e.g., government, university, or research center.)
  • What is the domain name? This is not always the best indicator; however, typically a “.edu” or a “.gov” is a good start, while “.org” is not necessary a guarantee that it’s a legitimate organization.
  • Is there an advisory board? If so who is on the advisory board?

Facts? Opinion? Bias?          

  • Check to see if the information on the site is based on the latest scientific research – the “state of the science.” You can always look on pubmed.gov or search in Google Scholar using key words and seeing what research articles show up. You can filter results by year too.
  • Information should be presented in a clear manner. It should be based on fact and verifiable from primary sources such as professional / scientific literature, peer-reviewed journal articles, and other scholarly researched, university backed sources.
  • Is the information showing only one point of view? Check multiple websites, especially university and government research organizations (such as CDC.gov and NIH).
  • Information that is opinion should be clearly stated on the website and the source or sources of the information should be identified.
  • Are there advertisers or sponsors on the site? Who are they? What type of ads? Keep in mind, most government websites, hospitals, universities and other non-profits don’t take ads or have sponsors.
  • Is advertising clearly marked as a sponsored? Many sites create advertorials – information disguised as editorial content or information from reliable health sources.
  • Look carefully to see if the site is a front for a corporation, pharmaceutical company or another biased organization.
  • Check the style and display of the site information including the graphics, colors, fonts, and size of text. Watch out for all capital letters, exclamation points, and anything out of the ordinary.
  • Has the material been reviewed or vetted by an expert, such as an M.D. or Ph.D. in the field?

Is the Information Accurate and Timely?

  • Are the sources cited reliable?
  • Is there a date on the page?
  • When the page was last updated? The site should be updated frequently. Health information changes constantly as new information about diseases and treatments is discovered through research and patient care. What was published a year ago may be outdated now.
  • Do the links work?
  • Are there grammatical and spelling errors?
  • Are there citations, footnotes/endnotes, bibliographies, or references so that you can verify the information? Are these reliable? Do they link to the sources?
  • Does the site have a seal of approval from a unbiased accrediting body such as “Health On the Net Foundation (HON)?” HON is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. For 15 years, HON has focused on the essential question of the provision of health information to citizens, information that respects ethical standards. (See: https://www.healthonnet.org/)
  • If the website is quoting research studies, follow these tips from the Harvard School of Public Health on Deciphering Media Stories:
    • Is the story simply reporting the results of a single study? Only very rarely would a single study be influential enough for people to change their behaviors based on the results. So it is important to see how that study fits in with other studies on the topic. Some articles provide this background; other times, you may need to do more digging on your own.
    • How large is the study? Large studies often provide more reliable results than small studies.
    • Was the study done in animals or humans? Mice, rats, and monkeys are not people. To best understand how food (or some other factor) affects human health, it must almost always be studied in humans.
    • Did the study look at real disease endpoints, like heart disease or osteoporosis?

Your Privacy Matters

  • Your health information should be confidential, and if you research a disease or condition that should also be private.
  • There should be a link saying “Privacy” or “Privacy Policy.” Read the privacy policy to see if your privacy is really being protected.
  • If there is a registration form, personal information required, or questions you have to answer before you can view content, you should probably skip it.

Additional Help

  • The Medical Library Association’s Consumer and Patient Health Information Section regularly reviews websites for inclusion on their “Top Health Websites” page http://www.mlanet.org/p/cm/ld/fid=397
  • Become familiar with the tools that help you find general health information, such as MedlinePlus (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/), produced by the National Library of Medicine, or Healthfinder (http://www.healthfinder.gov) from the US Department of Health and Human Services, which can quickly point you to credible health information.

Here are a few examples of credible websites: 

Cancer.gov

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

familydoctor.org

healthfinder

HIV InSite

Kidshealth

Mayo Clinic

MedlinePlus (EnglishSpanish)

NetWellness

NIH SeniorHealth

 






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