Researching health topics online can be frustrating, confusing and even scary, as it can be hard to know if information you find is correct and accurate. This article will empower you know how to find quality health information, and to recognize potentially bad sources of information.
I’ve been a librarian or librarian assistant for the past 16 years, working in public libraries and as the Health Science librarian here at Deaconess. In that time, I’ve seen many people struggle with finding quality health information online. I’ve even seen people be led astray, and make serious health decisions based upon inaccurate health information.
In this article are internet research guidelines, as well as numerous examples of excellent health information sources.
The importance of health literacy
One of the goals of this blog is to help improve overall health literacy. Health literacy refers to how well a person can get the health information and services that they need, and how well they understand them. It is also about using available resources to make good health decisions.
People may be very knowledgeable or even experts about many things—accounting, sports, construction, automotive repair, chemistry, electronics (the list goes on and on)—but may not have the knowledge they need to understand health information, which affects their ability to make informed health decisions.
More than 90 million adults in the United States have low health literacy, according to the US National Library of Medicine. It affects their ability to make health decisions, or follow physician or medication directions, which can harm their health. They may have trouble managing chronic diseases and leading a healthy lifestyle. They may go to the hospital more often and have poorer health overall. Between 7-17% of all healthcare expenditures in the U.S. are related to low health literacy.
Health literacy involves differences that people have in areas such as:
- Access to information that they can understand
- Skills, such as finding that information, communicating with health care providers, living a healthy lifestyle, and managing a disease
- Knowledge of medical words, and of how their healthcare system works
- Personal factors, such as age, education, language abilities, and culture
So read on to learn more about improving health literacy for yourself, or someone you care for.
How can you tell if an online source is credible?
Ideally, information should have an identifiable source or an author. However, anyone can publish anything these days! In considering the credibility of the source, ask yourself whether the particular source you are reading is likely to be fair, objective and lacking in hidden motives (more on motives in a bit).
Examine the credentials of the source to determine whether the author or organization has the required expertise and training to provide the information. If the information is medical, credibility is even more likely if it is provided by a medical institution, an entity that brings together medically knowledgeable professionals, or a government health agency.
Some of the most credible and accurate information online has been peer reviewed, meaning that other experts in the field have looked at the information.
Also, important clues to the identity of the publisher can be found in the Web address:
- .edu — A Web address that ends in ".edu" is published by an organization that is associated with an educational institution such as a university.
- .gov — An ending of ".gov" signifies that the web page belongs to a governmental organization.
- .org — An address ending in ".org" belongs to a nonprofit.
- .com — An ending of ".com" belongs to a for-profit company.
- .biz — An ending of “.biz” is often used by self-publishers, and should be regarded with caution. Biz is a clue that it may have come from spam or may contain a virus.
“Red flags” for the legitimacy of health information
Here are some “red flags” that health information may be inaccurate, or that the writer has some type of agenda or motives that should make you cautious.
- No author. Information that has no identifiable publisher or author should not be relied on, unless it is backed up by information from other sources that meet the criteria for credibility. (Even then, be careful, because why would someone publish anonymously if they believe what they’re saying?)
- Are they trying to sell you something? If the purpose of the information is primarily to sell a product (this is often found in areas of nutrition, supplements and “alternative therapies”), there may be a conflict of interest since the manufacturer may not want to present findings that would discourage you from purchasing the product. If you suspect that the intent is to sell you a product, consider getting additional information from a more neutral source.
- Bias, even professional bias. At other times, the source may not disclose all of the information or may have a bias that is more subtle and difficult to detect. Even well respected medical journals or websites may have a slight bias, depending on their experience. For example, a journal targeting surgeons may not discuss other valid treatment options such as radiation or chemotherapy, because that’s not their area of focus. Thus, the information may be accurate, but it may have a slight bias or omission because of its particular perspective.
- Is it recent? When reading health information, notice the date of publication. Given that health information is constantly changing as new discoveries are made, it is important to make sure that the information is current. If the information is based on a study done several years ago, you should look for more recent information to ensure that the information is still valid. For example, a website that has not been updated recently or an article that is several years old may not include information on new promising treatments.
- Is it too good to be true? Be skeptical of sensationalist claims of a "secret cure" or a "miraculous result" that no one else has heard about and that is not backed by evidence.
- Do anyone and everyone get to weigh in? Remember to use good judgment about information from forums such as Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. Keep in mind that the experience of one individual does not necessarily apply to you. Although such forums can provide valuable information and even a sense of community, there are very few safeguards in place to ensure the credibility or accuracy of the information. Any individual, regardless of expertise or experience, can dispense advice. Information from such forums should be substantiated by more reliable sources of information.
- Is the information presented well? Bad grammar or spelling errors indicate poor quality control and may suggest cause for caution
Some of the information above is sourced from the sites below. I encourage you to visit these sites for additional guidance on Internet health research.
Recommended health information sites
Here are some additional sites for quality, accurate and peer-reviewed health information. The CDC, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to prevent and control disease, injury, and disability. As one of the best government websites on the Internet, its coverage is broad. The "Diseases and Conditions" section covers major chronic and many infectious diseases, including AIDS, bird flu, common childhood diseases like measles and more exotic diseases like Ebola. Birth defects, traveler's health, emergency preparedness, vaccine and immunization information, accidents and injury information, infectious diseases, and workplace safety and health -- all are covered on this comprehensive site. Rich in information and colorfully illustrated, it also provides information in Spanish. Special features are regularly updated, and health news articles are added daily.
- Managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthfinder.gov provides reliable information gathered from approximately 1,400 health-related organizations. The site also includes tools for finding health services and support, National Health Observances toolkits, and information about health care reform. Use the “en Español” link to find a mirror site in Spanish.
- Mayoclinic.com This site offers a wealth of easy-to-understand health and medical information. In addition to comprehensive disease/condition guides, the site includes descriptions of drugs, supplements, tests, and procedures; healthy living guides; a symptom checker; and expert blogs.
- Medlineplus.gov The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, created and maintains MedlinePlus to assist consumers in locating authoritative health information. MedlinePlus pages offer carefully selected links to web resources with health information on more than 900 topics. Drug and supplement information, a medical dictionary, and patient education interactive tutorials are also provided. The Español button allows searching the site in Spanish, and the Multiple Languages section allows searching in over 40 other languages.
- NetWellness, a nonprofit consumer health website, provides more than 55,000 pages of high quality information created and evaluated by medical and health professional faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Case Western Reserve University, and the Ohio State University. Its “Ask An Expert” feature is a question and answer service provided by numerous health care professionals of the three universities. The “Reference Library” section provides links to other carefully selected health sites, and the “Research” section provides access to information about the latest medical research.
- Additionally CAPHIS, focusing on Consumer & Patient Health Information, has a list of the top 100 websites for certain types of health information, including:
- General health topics
- Women’s Health
- Men’s Health
- Parenting & Kids
- Senior Health
- Specific Health (such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, etc.)
- Drug Information Resources
- Complementary & Alternative Medicine
- For Health Professionals
- Other Useful Health Sites
Finally, for additional quality information, either written by Deaconess experts, or for links that they endorse, visit Deaconess.com/YourHealth.
If you would like more assistance with health information research, please feel free to contact me at the Deaconess Health Science Library. Please call Deaconess at 812-450-5000, and ask for me by name -Gail Lee - or for the Health Science Library.