The other night, a friend called me, half panicked about what she considered unusual signs and symptoms. I listened to her story and said, “You’re probably uncomfortable and worried about yourself.” After using more of my best listening skills, I told her, “I’m fairly sure that what you’ve got can be fixed with a good round of antibiotics. Call your physician in the morning.” An hour or so later, she sent a text saying, “I’m freaking out! I’ve been reading on the internet and I’m afraid these symptoms could be something really awful.” I was blunt in my response: “Stop reading that junk!” Understandably, though, it’s not always easy to know how to find credible healthcare information on the internet.
Recently, NewsGuard stated, “Americans consume an unhealthy diet of health misinformation. Of the sites analyzed by NewsGuard, 11% provide misinformation about health; in other words, more than 1 in 10 news websites accessed by Americans includes bad information about health.” To find credible healthcare information, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests asking yourself five classic questions: what, who, where, when, why. Here, I’ll give you my take on those five questions.
What is the site or app promising or offering? Do its claims seem too good to be true?
My antennae go up when I read these crazy claims: “Reverse your diabetes tomorrow…” or “Never have eczema again…” or “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days.”
The Federal Trade Commission tells us that “The products promise quick cures and easy solutions for a variety of problems, from obesity and arthritis to cancer and AIDS. But the ‘cures’ don’t deliver…” Not surprisingly, StatNews.com warns that “Health websites are notoriously misleading,” and they name names!
Who runs the site, app, or writes the content? Can you trust them?
- Accountability? First, I want to know the name of a human being who takes responsibility for what’s written. It might not immediately be obvious. For example, with my blog, there’s no by-line. But you can go to the “About” page and find out about the author’s credibility.
- Credentialing: Next, I want to know if the writer has credentials or credibility. I don’t give two hoots about someone’s privately-earned certification. I want to know if the author has earned a state license to practice in healthcare.
- Evidence-based: That being said, there’s another part of me that totally disregards an author’s government-issued credential. I want to know if the facts they’re publishing line up with the facts I know to be true. For example, Dr. Axe has earned the degrees, state licenses and much more. He has some outstanding, evidence-based information which I respect and trust. But his information on breastfeeding is far from ideal. (I offered to write a guest blog post, but his people declined my offer.)
- Domain names: Johns Hopkins points out that in general, websites ending in .org, .gov., or .edu are the most credible for gaining healthcare information. But honestly, I’ve read some real junk science on website with those domains, so that’s only a guide. And by the way, since I’m telling you this on my own “.com” domain, I’m eager to point out that domain names are only a guideline.
Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
Admittedly, I do read news stories written by journalists who describe a newly-released study. But the first thing I do is see if they have given a link to the actual study. If they didn’t, then I pretty much just leave the site and go elsewhere.
When was the information written or reviewed?
Let me be clear here. I’m entirely unconcerned if some information is based publications that are more than 5 years old. If high-quality studies have stood the test of time — as high-quality studies often do — I don’t worry too much about when they were published.
That said, I do look to see that more recent evidence is cited. And, although I recognize that some information doesn’t change much, I do look to see when the information was last reviewed when looking for credible healthcare information.
Why does the site or app exist?
The best example I can think of here is breastfeeding information that is posted on a site that sells formula. I’m guessing that they want to look like the “good guy” who gives information.
Look for bias. Don’t get me wrong; people who sell products are often highly knowledgeable about the products they are selling. But that situation gives me pause.
Seeking credible healthcare information should become a habit
There’s no easy, bullet-proof way to determine if a site is credible or not, But you’re more likely to find a credible site when you think about the who-what-when-where-why. (And if you’re having trouble remembering those Ws, see Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem for the clues!)
Have you found bad healthcare information on the internet? How do you go about finding credible healthcare information online? Tell me in the comments below!