Finding Credible Information
The fastest growing resource of information in our society today is the internet. There is a seemingly endless supply of information about health and just about anything else you can imagine on the internet along with opportunities to interact with people all over the world. Imagine being diagnosed with a rare health condition, and being able to connect with other people who share your diagnosis even though they live hundreds, if not thousands of miles away.
In recent years, the growth in technology and new media has created a communications revolution that puts instant and equal access to previously unavailable or difficult-to-find information at your fingertips. Unfortunately, the quality of that information can be described as the good, the bad and the ugly. How do you tell the difference? That’s an important question when you consider that people rely on this information to make important decisions about their health and healthcare.
The internet has virtually no controls over who is posting information or whether the information is correct, or even safe.
We have a tough job. Having a critical eye is our responsibility. We must decide which information is good based on common sense, sound judgment and some general guidelines. Approach the information with skepticism and caution and you’ll be able to navigate to the highest quality information.
The National Library of Medicine has put together a tutorial to help you Evaluate Internet Health Information.
What to look for. . .
Many reliable websites have a seal of certification from a trusted accrediting organization like URAC and the Health on the Net Foundation . This “seal of approval” tells users the information on a particular site is reliable. To earn a seal, the web site has to meet certain conditions. Health and medical site owners seek this accreditation on their own. There are plenty of sites without these seals that contain good health information.
Use a specialized search engine
There are specialized search engines that look only at reputable sites that have been vetted by health professionals. Dirline, run by the National Library of Medicine, is one such engine, as are medlineplus.gov and imedix.com. Healthfinder.gov searches for information on government health Web sites.
Check the source
Who is responsible for the content? At the end of the web site’s URL (the web address, starting with http://), you will usually see .com, .edu, .gov, or .org if the web site originates in the United States. Good sources of health information include:
- “dot govs”—are from governmental agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- A college or university like Johns Hopkins University Medicine will have a “dot edu”.
- “dot orgs”, are non-profit organizations. Look for groups whose focus is research and teaching the public about specific diseases or conditions, such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association. Hospitals and other health care facility sites like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic are “dot orgs.” Medical and science journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association are also “dot orgs” and are a credible source of information although they may be difficult to understand as they aren’t written for consumers.
- “dot com”, indicates a commercial website. These websites are trying to sell you a product or service, or sell advertising space. This doesn’t mean the information isn’t good; there are many commercial sites that provide trustworthy information.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you are looking for health information on the web:
- Check out the source of the information. Be wary of Web sites that (1) do not list the origin of the information, (2) are trying to sell a product or service, or (3) are promoting only one point of view. The most objective sites are government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the National Library of Medicine, or your local department of health. One question you could ask yourself: Does the author have anything to gain from having only one viewpoint on the topic?
- Know the purpose of the site. Many sites have an “About This Site” or “About Us” link. Click on it to see what the purpose of the site is. It will help you to find out if the information is reliable.
- Know who is paying for the site. The source of funding for the site can affect what content is on it. Is the site paid for by advertising or by sponsorship from a drug company? The answer should be clearly stated or easy to find.
- Find out when the site was last updated. Health and medical information is constantly changing and needs to be current. If the information is old, it could be less reliable. If the website is rarely updated, it probably is not as accurate as a site that posts information regularly. Always know when the site was first created and when it was last revised.
- Is the information reviewed by experts? Having a review system in place will help ensure that the information is reliable.
- Be aware of what information the site is collecting. If you have to be a member or sign up on the site, chances are that information will be used for something other than identification. Any site that requests your name, address, credit card, or other information should tell you exactly what they will do -- and not do -- with this data.
- The site should have a way to contact the organization or webmaster. Look for a “Contact Us” link.
- Get a second opinion. Compare the information with that of other sources.
Most important of all: No health information on the web should take the place of information provided by your physician or healthcare provider. Health information on the Internet is meant to supplement the information your physician gives you” not replace it. Ask your doctor what he or she knows about the topic or finding and what sources they would regard as reliable.
Checklist that can help determine a site's value:
Who wrote the information? Health-related websites often post information from other sources, and those original sources should be clearly stated.
If a healthcare professional didn't write the information, was it reviewed by a doctor or medical expert?
If the information contains any statistics, do the numbers come from a reliable source?
Does something on the website appear to be opinion rather than fact? If so, is the opinion from a qualified person or organization?
Below is a partial list of informational web sites that can be used by patients to find credible medical information:
Healthfinder (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Family Doctor (American Academy of Family Physicians)