From Biosis 8, January 2006 (Updated)
Can You Believe It?: Tips for Evaluating Online Health Claims
Health and wellness information is hot, and the Internet is probably the number one way people find it. Anywhere from 70 to 80% of all Internet users have looked for health information online. And according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, when it comes to serious conditions such as cancer, while twice as many said they trust physicians over online sources, almost half of all survey respondents turned to the Internet first.
Much online information is valuable, and there is trustworthy material out there. Yet the Internet is notorious for misinformation, as well. Obviously, this is a major problem when it comes to learning about our health. We want to be sure that we’re getting the best information – accurate, up-to-date and non-biased.
But how can you tell?
Where’s the Info Coming From?
Reputable websites offer some background about who is providing the information. If you don’t see it on the homepage, look for an “About” link either on the main navigation bar or at the bottom of the page. In this way, you can learn that the “Truth About Splenda” likely offers little truth about the artificial sweetener: the site is sponsored by a trade group of American sugar beet and cane farmers. Likewise, you should think twice about nutritional info offered through the Center for Consumer Freedom site. A quick look around will inform you that the “Center” is actually a collective of restaurants and food companies.
For advocacy groups, it can also be useful to look at the financial information they provide – at least the most reputable nonprofits do. See if they are funded by businesses with a financial stake in the issues. For instance, a glance at an annual report for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (PDF) will let you know that NAMI receives significant funding from most of the major pharmaceutical firms.
Always be alert for such potential conflicts of interest. Judge the information offered accordingly.
When visiting personal websites, you should consider the background of its author. Does he or she have experience related to the site’s topic(s) or other evidence of expertise? If not, proceed with caution.
If the site offers no background information at all, find a different site.
Is It Long on Drama but Short on Fact?
Some “alternative health” sites in particular tend toward an alarmist tone and a lot of hyperbole. Every situation is a health crisis. Though there may be cause for alarm, the information is usually dramatic enough on its own. The question you should ask is whether enough facts are given to support the claims. Articles should name names and cite sources. If there’s not enough to let you verify the information through further research, consider it with an extra-critical eye.
Once you’ve found the information you sought, it can be useful to follow up on it with other searches via Google or other search engine. Useful search terms include the article’s subject, author or sponsor, as well as any research cited. Two excellent sources for learning more about cited research are Stanford University’s HighWire Press and the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed. Both offer info on and abstracts of published scientific research through basic search techniques. Some full articles may be accessed for free; others, for a fee. You can also check your local library’s website for databases of periodicals, most of which include at least some medical and scientific journals. These articles can be freely accessed.
The Internet can be a powerful tool. But it is only a tool. Any health concerns you have should be checked out with your health care providers. You may find it useful to bring copies of the information you found online to share with your doctors, to facilitate conversation and to get his or her input on the matter.