The internet has been the greatest force on the planet to get vast amounts of information out to the public. However, its decentralized, leaderless structure means there is no gatekeeper to determine whether information is factual or credible before it is published. This is especially problematic for medical information, given the potential repercussions of following incorrect or misleading medical advice.
Many articles related to health on the internet are produced by content mills and individuals with no medical training. Even so, this does not mean that the internet is devoid of reliable health information. It’s all about knowing how to find it. Here are some practical tips.
1. Prioritize Health Search Engines Over Google
Google is the undisputed king of internet queries. No one can match the sheer scale of online information the search giant has indexed. But Google is akin to a fishing trawler. Whileit has gone to great lengths to improve the quality of its search results, it is extremely difficult for Google to exhaustively review the trillions of indexed pages for content reliability.
You can use Google and other mainstream search engines to search for health information online. However, it is best to do so only after you have exhausted other sources, such as a reliable health search engine or portal like MedlinePlus. Health search engines are devoted to medical-related information only and have taken time to provide accurate, proven and reviewed content.
2. Prioritize .GOV, .EDU and .ORG Results
Websites cost money to create, host, update and secure. They have to be funded by something or someone. The nature of a website’s owner or sponsor is an important factor in whether the health information it holds is reliable. If you don’t recognize the publisher, a site’s domain name extension can be a good indicator of the publisher’s ownership. For example, .GOV, .EDU or .ORG are likely to have more reputable content.
.GOV sites are run by government agencies, for example, while .EDU sites identify an academic institution such as a university or college. .ORG websites are usually run by nonprofit organizations such as advocacy groups, research societies and professional bodies. .GOV, .EDU and .ORG sites are more likely to have medical information that is backed by solid research. Unlike, .COM, .NET, .INFO and other domain extension types, .GOV, .EDU and .ORG are not primarily driven by a profit motive.
3. Check Author Qualification and Conflict of Interest
Does the article identify the author? Many pages on .EDU and .GOV websites do not have an author’s name. You should consider such as authored and backed by the organization itself. But where an author name is provided, confirm that they are a subject matter expert. It is fairly straightforward; if someone is writing about dental problems, for example, they ought to be a dentist.
Where possible, confirm whether there is a financial incentive or other conflict of interest that could cloud their objectivity. The author may be an expert but could still be biased if taking a certain position that is profitable for them or their benefactor.
4. Is It Current?
There is so much that remains unknown or unproven when it comes to the human body and health conditions. Medical knowledge is therefore continuously evolving. That means health information that may have been accurate two decades ago may not necessarily be correct today.
Look for sites that are kept current. Even if an article was originally written a couple of years ago, check for an indication at the top or bottom of the page of when it was last updated. You do not want to make health decisions based on outdated information.
5. Be Wary of Miracle Cures
Any website that claims a certain drug or activity is a miracle cure for an illness is one you should avoid. If a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. A key characteristic of reliable medical information is that you will find it repeated on multiple authoritative websites.
No one website has the monopoly on medical information. Whenever you are in doubt, check to see if you see the same assertion has been repeated on two or three other dependable websites, or have peer-reviewed studies published to back up the claims.
Defer to Your Doctor
Follow these tips to get the medical information you need. That said, use common sense and exercise good judgement. You may not be a health-care professional but always listen to your gut when something you read seems off. Above all, discuss with your doctor before making any health decisions based on medical information you find online.