Internet Health Sources: Who to Trust
[American Legion Magazine] Like most people, you probably search for health information on the Internet. Perhaps you’ve looked for details about a particular symptom or treatment or searched for facts about a disease or disorder. You may even make health decisions based on sources that show up on the first page of a search engine. But do you know which online health sources are credible and which are questionable?
Sixty-one percent of Americans now search for health information on the Internet, according to a recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Six out of 10 of those said the information they found online affected their decision about how to treat an illness or condition, and 56 percent said it changed how they maintained their own health or the health of another.
Transferring the trust you have in your doctors to online medical sources is a common mistake, says John M. Martinez, M.D., medical director of Coastal Sports and Wellness Medical Center in San Diego, and a retired military officer (USAF). “The average person should be concerned about the validity of the information provided and the healthcare background and training of the person or company providing the information. While there are many great sources of medical information on the Internet, says Martinez, “there are also just as many that slant the information they provide to support a product, medication or treatment that they may be profiting from.”
Recent studies looked at which health websites Internet searches turn up most. They found the websites search engines featured on their first pages were more likely to recommend treatments based on little or no evidence, and often failed to cite sources or report conflicts of interest.
Another downside is that people often delay seeing their physician for a serious condition, such as angina, because they read on the Internet that their chest pain could be heartburn. “One reason medical training takes so long is the length of time it takes physicians to learn how to assess a general complaint like ‘I’m tired’ along with a careful history and exam to differentiate the possible causes,” says Martinez.
That said, there are also significant benefits to having credible, current online health resources available. “Patients have become much more knowledgeable about their diseases and medical conditions,” says Martinez. “This change has helped many of my patients become more pro-active in their treatment.”
To determine whether or not a website offers trustworthy information, you need to know what to look for. “Probably the most important question to ask when looking at an Internet health resource is not what is written, but who writes it,” says James Dom Dera, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine at Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy. “Some nice graphics and a catchy URL, combined with some official looking references, is all it takes to make a site on the Internet look legitimate,” he says.
As one example of the benefits and risks of Internet health resources, Dom Dera points to the recent H1N1 pandemic. “On one hand, a quick search of ‘H1N1 symptoms’ provides some fairly accurate answers from reliable sites. However, search ‘H1N1 vaccine’ and not only do you find many news stories of questionable usefulness, you’ll also find a great deal of misinformation and fear mongering.”
How to evaluate health websites
Medical journalists often ask certain questions to vet the quality and accuracy of the new treatments, tests, products, and procedures they report on for top U.S. newspapers can also help you decide whether or not online information is trustworthy, says Gary Schwitzer, associate professor at University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The basic 10 criteria, formalized on Schwitzer’s website HealthNewsReview.org, provide a good checklist for evaluating any claims in health care from any source.
Here’s a simplified version of the checklist:
- What’s the total cost?
- How often do benefits occur?
- How often do harms occur?
- How strong is the evidence?
- Is this condition exaggerated?
- Are there alternative options?
- Is this really a new approach?
- Is it available to me?
- Who’s promoting this?
- Do they have a conflict of interest?
Health websites you can trust:
- Alzheimer’s Association – alz.org
- American Heart Association – www.americanheart.org
- American Diabetes Association – diabetes.org
- Cancer.net – Cancer.net
- Cleveland Clinic – my.clevelandclinic.org
- E-Medicine – eMedicine.com
- Family Doctor – familydoctor.org
- Health Talk Online – healthtalkonline.org
- Mayo Clinic – mayoclinic.com
- MedPage Today – medpagetoday.com
- MedlinePlus – medlineplus.gov
- Medpedia – medpedia.com
- Medscape – medscape.com