With countless online sources to access information, it can be a challenge to evaluate the accuracy of what you’re reading. But when it comes to health information, discerning fact from fiction is critical. We often take action based on the knowledge we have, but when we’re making decisions about our health based on something that’s false, the consequences can be greater than simply being misinformed.
If you’re struggling to separate real from fake with online health sources, here’s an overview of how to understand research and get accurate information about matters that can impact your health.
How to Assess Health Information Online
You need a healthy dose of skepticism when reading claims on the Internet. Don’t assume everything you read is factual, especially if you aren’t familiar with the source. The first thing you need to do to assess the accuracy of the information is learn more about who is giving it to you.
Go to the website’s “About Us” page to get more details on who’s behind the site and its editorial process. Does the organization have any conflicts of interest? Sometimes, these conflicts aren’t so obvious, but a quick Google search can unearth details and give you background on the person or organization behind what you’re reading.
Also look at the article bylines on the site. Are they written by credible medical experts? Is the information written by reputable journalists, and does it cite experts from well-known hospitals and organizations, health or governmental organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Cancer Society or the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?
Most, if not all, health information you read online should be medically reviewed, and any studies they cite should come from peer-reviewed journals and be as current as possible. Since medical information changes so much based on new research, any credible website will periodically review its previous content to ensure that all the information is still accurate. If you visit a website and see information that clearly hasn’t been updated in years, look for a better source.
What Are the Red Flags?
Grammatical Errors: This is probably the biggest red flag. If the organization doesn’t take the time to edit their content, how can you trust the information is accurate?
Clear Bias: We all have a sixth sense that tells us when something is amiss. If you read information that is clearly one-sided, contains information that isn’t supported by other sources or has strong language advocating a certain position without any objective evidence or research, you should reconsider whether that information actually is valid.
Domain Extensions: How many trustworthy websites have a .net or .online address? Not many. Most websites have a .com address, but the most credible sites for health information likely will have a .gov, .edu or .org address. However, commercial businesses can now register .org domains, so do a little extra research when you land on one of these sites.
Requests for Medical Information: If a health website asks you for personal information like your Social Security number, financial details or personal health information, its providers may be more interested in schilling a product than empowering you with facts. Health information is protected under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), so if this request isn’t coming from a qualified health care provider via a secure portal, don’t provide it.
No Contact Information: If there’s no clear or easy way to contact someone if you have a question, want to leave feedback or encounter an issue with the website, this is another red flag.
Credible Sources of Health Information
Even with countless unreliable sources of information online, there are places you can depend on for accurate health information. Some of these include:
Major Academic Medical Centers: Think Johns Hopkins, the Cleveland Clinic or Harvard School of Public Health.
Local Health or Medical Libraries: Visit the National Network of Libraries of Medicine website to find medical libraries in your community. These libraries are staffed with qualified and trained health science librarians who can help you find accurate information.
We all want to feel empowered to take ownership over our health, and one way we can do this is by learning how to understand research. Before you seek information online, take some extra time to ensure what you’re reading is reliable and accurate — the extra effort is more than worth it. And of course, talk to your doctor if you truly need to understand your symptoms or get a diagnosis.