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Health Information on the Web: Whom Do You Trust?
My doctor gave me a prescription for a new medication. When I got home, I immediately Googled it and clicked on the top search result. The website offered this caution. “May cause matting of the fur around the mouth.” I had a moment of panic. My doctor hadn’t said anything about fur around the mouth. It took just another second to check the page’s masthead and see that I had landed on a veterinary website. The lesson: check out the website’s sponsor.
The good news: there’s a ton of health information on the web. That’s also the bad news: the sheer volume can be overwhelming. Government agencies, health advocacy groups, drug companies, doctors and patients all have websites. It’s a lot of work to sort through and evaluate the glut of information that can be inaccurate, out of date, biased or contradictory. So how do you find information you can trust? Here are some tips to get started.
Who Sponsors the Website?
Sometimes it is easy to find the sponsor. For example, the National Cancer Institute’s tagline identifies it as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The “About NCI” page tells you everything you might want to know about NCI, including a Fact Sheet.
Often the sponsor is deliberately obscured. Diabetes.com provides information about managing diabetes, diets, and treatments. But you must scroll down to the fine print to discover that the site is owned by GlaxoSmithKline, the drug company that sells the diabetes medication Avandia.
Some websites don’t identify the sponsor. Osteoporosis Treatment provides information about clinical trials and treatment options. But there’s no information about the sponsor. Drug company, patient, doctor, nonprofit? Without knowing the sponsor, it is difficult to judge the reliability of the information.
Who Funds the Website?
Even if the website is sponsored by a nonprofit health advocacy group, it may receive financial support from drug companies or other commercial enterprises. That’s fine as long as the organization discloses this.
But according to a recent study by the American Journal of Public Health, many not-for-profit health advocacy groups do not disclose this relationship on their website. Without disclosure, website visitors can’t judge whether the drug company’s funding biases the web content.
What’s the Source of the Information?
How credible is the source of the information? Is it based on the organization’s own research? If experts provide the information, what criteria are used to determine their expertise? For example, JustAnswer says it verifies the credentials of online doctors who answer patient questions for a fee. But the verification process seems superficial, and doctors must pay to become a Just Answer expert.
What’s the Purpose?
Often the website’s purpose is obvious. If a government agency is the sponsor, its purpose is public information. If a drug company is the sponsor, its purpose is selling drugs. But sometimes the purpose is less obvious. In exchange for providing useful information, websites sponsored by doctors and medical experts may sell their books, treatment plans, or nutritional supplements.
Is the Information Up To Date?
Well-regarded government agencies are good sources of health information. But if the information isn’t up to date, the information may be of little value. For example, on its Multiple Sclerosis page, NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) provides a download of a 2001 report on MS research. Ten years in medical research is ancient history.
In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does a good job of keeping its content up-to-date. Each page gives the date the information was last updated and reviewed.
RX: Find a Good Doctor
Finding reliable sources of health information takes hard work. Don’t rely on one site. And the web is no substitute for a good doctor who can help you sort through the information gleaned from the web.
To find reliable health information, check out these recommendations.
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