To some, the only thing separating a medical website from a medical doctor is a degree. It’s true, the internet is being consulted more and more for health advice. At Mainstream we’ve worked with people who use the internet to self-diagnose, to self-prescribe, to research the sometimes scary number of side effects associated with their medications. All of this, without even needing to schedule an appointment. So, can we trust the online information?
Looking at health info online isn’t so cut and dry. The NCCIH (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health) lists five quick questions that we should ask ourselves when checking out a health website:
Who? What? When? Where? Why?
When answering this question, look in the “acknowledgments” section at the bottom of any post. Most websites will also have an “about” section that will be towards the bottom of the page. From there you can read about who created/runs the site, who sponsors the site, and who publishes/reviews the articles. It is important to look for whether the site is being monitored by a team of doctors who can ascertain whether the information on the site is accurate. It is also important to look at whether the site is run by a private company that could have some financial stake in what is being said on the site. Private companies, or companies with private sponsors, are liable to be biased when providing information about their product. It’s much more reliable to read the details about a product from a third-party, unbiased source.
It’s important to be constantly evaluating the content of the site. With everything you read, think about what you are reading. Does the information make sense? Does it seem fantastical, too good to be real? Medical breakthroughs do happen, but science still doesn’t have the perfect pill to solve every problem. If you find your jaw dropping while reading about “ the diet everyone’s going crazy about”, or “the thing your dentist doesn’t want you to know”, it could be good to take a few steps back before signing up for that “free 30-day trial”. When reading about these breakthroughs, always consult your doctor because snake oil salesmen are still around, and the internet is chock-full of them.
The date medical information is posted can be pretty heavily correlated with the accuracy of the post’s content. The field of medicine is constantly being updated and fine-tuned, and so it is important to check when the information you’re reading has been published. Look for articles that have been published/updated as recently as possible, preferably within the last few years. It is also important to consider when the review process for the content took pace. Check in the “about” section to see whether a team of doctors has reviewed the website’s postings before they are posted rather than after.
Online health info can come from all over. Friends, co-workers, your mom. It’s often a good idea to be skeptical about word-of-mouth health information (unless of course your friends, co-workers, and mom are all doctors). When looking to see where online health information is coming from, check to see if it is based off of scientific research rather than personal accounts, anecdotes, or any other opinion-based claim. Evaluate any listed research and look for the institution/credentials related to those who have done the research. Check to see if the research has administered large-scale testing (thousands of trials). Try to find out whether other studies are listed in which the findings have been supported.
To answer this question, try to find the purpose behind the site. What goals are they trying to accomplish? Why does the site exist in the first place? Does it seem like what you’re reading is being authored by Billy Mays? Do you feel like they’re trying to sell a certain diet, or recovery tool, or medication? If it seems like they might be trying to sell you something, odds are that’s exactly what they’re doing. Before buying, using, or doing anything medically related, it is always a good idea to first consult your doctor.
It does take some time to answer these questions, but there luckily there are a few quick ways to assess the reliability of online sources:
Domains ending with “.gov” or “.edu” generally have high standards for the information they present, and should be considered trustworthy. Two online accreditation services that evaluate the transparency and accuracy of “.com” health websites are “HONcode” and “URAC”. These services do a lot of the who/what/when/where/why work for us. If they have approved a website, you can find their badges on the bottom of the approved site’s page.
For social media:
Many social media accounts now profess to be sources of reliable health information. To assess whether an account is run by the entity the account is claiming to represent, check to see if the account has been verified by the social media platform. Here are the verification badges that will be next to the account’s name for Twitter and Facebook (respectively).
While it may seem like the internet is getting closer and closer to graduating from medical school, consulting your doctor is still the only surefire way to get reliable health information.
To read more on how to evaluate online health information, visit: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/webresources
To watch a video on how to evaluate online health information, visit: https://medlineplus.gov/webeval/webeval_start.html
To read more about URAC’s accreditation process, visit: https://www.urac.org/accreditation-and-measurement/accreditation-programs/all-programs/health-web-site/
To read more about the HONcode certification process, visit: http://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/