Welcome to the digital era, where the internet, and now ChatGPT, has revolutionized the way we access information, particularly when it comes to our health. From symptoms and diagnoses to treatment options and wellness tips, a plethora of health-related information is readily available at our fingertips. But as convenient as this may seem, it's crucial to recognize that not all information found online is created equal. In fact, the abundance of medical information on the internet makes it all the more important for us to develop the skills to discern credible sources from false ones.
Imagine waking up with an unfamiliar rash or experiencing persistent headaches, prompting you to turn to the internet for answers. However, it quickly becomes clear that not all websites, forums, or articles are giving you the same information. The challenge lies in distinguishing between reliable and accurate sources that can genuinely aid your understanding, and those that may lead you astray, potentially causing unnecessary worry or even harm. Let’s learn how to navigate the online landscape of medical information using critical evaluation in order to make informed health decisions.
Where can you find reliable health information online?
There are thousands of medical websites; some provide reliable and current health information, while others do not. Choosing trustworthy sources is a crucial step in finding reliable health information and avoiding misinformation.
- Government websites like Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US’s National Institute of Health (NIH), and the UK’s National Health Society (NHS). These websites end in .gov or country domains such as .gov.uk or .gov.au. Look for bigger governments that you trust.
- Peer-reviewed articles: you can look for them through Google Scholar or other article databases.
- Large non-profits like National Kidney Foundation (NKF), American Heart Association (AHA), and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (make sure they are reputable and large). These tend to end in .org but keep in mind that reputation is important because anyone can create a .org website.
- Educational institutions like Harvard Health Publishing. These websites end in .edu.
ChatGPT can be a useful tool as well, but remember that it gets its information from the entire internet, so it can sometimes give the wrong answer.
Seven tips for evaluating online health information:
1. Look for evidence
Reliable health information is based on scientific evidence and supported by research. Look for references, citations, or sources of the information provided. At the end of a scholarly article, you will find the list of the works cited by the author(s). This list is usually called a reference list, works cited, or bibliography. It is typically quite long and includes books, articles, and other sources.
By including references or citations, the author gives credit to the original sources of information. They also enable readers to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the topic.
2. Check the publication date
Review the publication or upload date of the information. Medical knowledge and recommendations can evolve, so it's important to access the most current and up-to-date information.
3. Assess transparency and disclosure
Reliable sources of health information prioritize the well-being and education of their users, rather than purely seeking profit or promoting unproven treatments. Look for websites that minimize or clearly label advertisements and avoid intrusive pop-ups, as these may indicate a lack of credibility.
To identify potential bias in information sources, you can: consider the author or organization's background and affiliation, look for information about funding sources and whether they have financial gain at stake, and pay attention to potential one-sided arguments.
4. Look for quality research
Finding journals that are peer-reviewed and ideally have many citations is one way to ensure credible research. Some journals explicitly state that they are peer-reviewed on their website or in the article's publication information. You may find phrases such as "peer-reviewed," "refereed," or "reviewed by experts" associated with the journal or article.
You can also look for phrases like "Abstract," "Materials and Methods," or "Results" that suggest the article follows a scientific research structure.
Digging Deeper: It is also important to aim for large studies when looking at scientific studies. In the field of medicine, when studying common conditions like heart disease or cancer, large studies can involve tens of thousands of patients and may take many years to gather data. However, for very specific and rare conditions, it's possible that there aren't many patients available for research. In these cases, a "large" study might include enrolling the entire global population with that condition, which could be as few as a hundred patients.
5. Evaluate website quality
Be wary of websites that display obtrusive advertisements or engage in other “sketchy” practices. Such “sketchy” practices can include aggressive or manipulative tactics that push products or services, such as deceptive clickbait or forced subscriptions. Websites that make outrageous or unverifiable claims about health products, treatments, or cures should also be approached with caution.
Look for websites that minimize or clearly label advertisements and avoid intrusive pop-ups, as these may indicate a lack of credibility.
6. Be cautious with personal anecdotes and testimonials
While personal experiences can be valuable, they should not be considered definitive evidence. Make sure to look for information backed by scientific research and expertise.
7. Consult multiple sources
Cross-reference information from different reputable sources to gain a broader perspective and ensure consistency across various sources. Each source may provide unique insights, diverse viewpoints, and varying levels of detail.
Although finding reliable health information online can be a tedious process, it is so, so important. This will ensure you receive accurate and evidence-based knowledge about your condition and make well-informed decisions in consultation with healthcare providers.
Still have questions or concerns about validity? Consult a healthcare professional.
If you're unsure about anything you found online, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider—they are experts in their field and are there to provide accurate guidance and address any concerns you may have.
Actively listening to their recommendations, asking for clarification when needed, and sharing relevant information about your symptoms or medical history is key to fostering a productive patient-provider relationship.
As we navigate the vast sea of medical information online, let's keep in mind the timeless wisdom of Abraham Lincoln:
Of course, he didn't really say it, but this serves as a reminder that a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary. By arming ourselves with the tools to discern credible sources from unreliable ones, we can confidently sift through medical information and make informed decisions about our health.