Online health information — what can you trust?

Princeton,NJ/ 360prwire/ November 26/

(Source: https://www.pexels.com/de-de/foto/frau-im-weissen-hemd-das-coronavirus-nachrichten-liest-4185957/)

Getting information about health topics online is controversial. While some fear it creates hypochondriacs, at the same time it is undeniably a helpful tool for educating yourself about the things medical professionals overlook. Many diagnoses to conditions that are chronically under diagnosed — as is the case with autism in girls and grown-ups — must be fought for by the patients themselves. To figure out what is wrong with them, they need access to trustworthy health information. If you need to read up on medical issues online, here’s what to look out for.

How to Find Trustworthy Health Information from the Internet

It is a relatively new tradition that anybody can look up any information they want. Before the internet, this knowledge was restricted. You could find it in libraries and universities. Even further back, if you were black or female, you had no access to some information at all.

It is important to think about how knowledge used to spread before it became readily available for anybody. Especially when you look at medical professionals and their opinion on self-diagnosis and the like. When you spend many years and a lot of money on studying a topic, it would insult just about anybody is somebody came to you after a quick Google search thinking they know better.

But the thing is, sometimes they DO know better. Because they have the best insight into what they experience, and no theoretical knowledge can ever emulate that. And now, on top of that, they have much of the same information at hand that used to be taught in universities exclusively. It is not that doctors are getting outwitted by amateurs. But rather that these people have much more time on their hands to pick their problems apart and read up on them, while medical professionals — sadly — have very limited time to spend on individual patients.

What this is meaning to say is: health information on the internet can be incredibly useful, lifesaving even. But that is only the case if that information is correct and comes from a trustworthy source. During COVID-19, we have seen plenty of damaging advice. Not all of it was malicious and came from people who did not fact-check or looked at fake sources. To determine what is good information, there are three things you can keep in mind:

Where is it from?

There are trustworthy and untrustworthy sites on the internet, and you will have to weed the bad ones out yourself. Here are some hints on how to do that:

  • The URL has a hint on who is sponsoring the website

A URL can end with all kinds of words. Some of them tell you that the website is hosted by a credible organization.

  • .gov is a U.S. Government website
  • .edu belongs to an educational institution
  • .org is a professional or non-profit organization
  • .com marks a commercial website, these are the least likely to be unbiased in this selection

A good example (and more information on this article’s topic) is this tutorial on evaluating health information created by The National Library of Medicine

  • If you are unsure

Websites with other endings can be helpful too. A site like healthweb.digital collects heath information in thematically sorted articles. These are a base for further research and should always be followed up by fact-checking.

  • Authors

Who wrote the article? What are their credentials? Are they medical professionals? This especially important if there are no or barely any sources mentioned in the article.

  • About-Section

Credible websites will always have an About or Contact section where you find additional information about the owner or the organization. It is a good sign if you find a way to contact them. Untrustworthy sites often don’t add any contact info at all.

What information is the article based on?

Sources are the most important thing when it comes to health information. A good article should always make it clear what their information is based on. Some add the sources as a list at the bottom of the text. Some put links to their sources in the text itself. An article that has no sources at all is questionable at best, if it hasn’t been written by an academic expert on the topic.

Scientific studies are the single most helpful source you can find. The information you find here was written under academic standards and was tested according to all the necessary scientific regulations. 

  • Be careful: Not every study or research paper is fact. Some are just speculations that are based on very small trial groups and results that might be promising but have yet to be proven.

Other good sources are medical textbooks.

When looking at articles and the mentioned sources and references, always make sure to check the date. If it is multiple years old, the information might be outdated and disproven by now.

It is not written to entertain, entice, or surprise you

You can ask yourself what the purpose of medical information is. It is supposed to educate you. There is next to no entertainment value in that. Be wary of content that is overly dramatic, surprising, or entertaining in any other way. While health information can surely be written in an entertaining way, the content with the most important information is usually rather scientific and formal.

  • Miracle Cures and advertisement to specific commercially available treatments are bad signs for a hidden sponsorship or agenda.

Tips for using search engines

  • Google has a Google Scholar subsection, where you can specifically search for research papers
  • Putting phrases in quotation marks makes sure the result includes the “exact phrase”
  • Using an or between words lets you try out synonyms in one single search
  • If you want to search a website instead of the internet, add site:URL at the end of the search phrase
  • And most importantly: Compare the information you find with the content on  multiple sites!