There is a huge wealth of information on the internet, as we all know, however there is also a lot of stuff that is false, or has been posted with a commercial or political agenda. Most of the time it is easy enough to tell what is fact and what is opinion, and whether a source is reliable, but in some cases, particularly with health related topics, it can be a little harder to know when you are reading the findings of a new study at a university and when you are reading something, for instance, sponsored by a drug company. One of the first things most people do now when they have a new symptom or they are diagnosed with a condition is start to do some research online, however this can be misleading and even dangerous if you don’t know how to separate good sources from unhelpful ones.
Here are some tips for evaluating a health website before you start taking in what it has to say.
Who Runs the Site?
There are loads of health resources on the web, some run by government agencies, some by hospitals, some by universities, some by drug companies and so on. Some are simply magazine style reference sites that post the latest news or health advice that they get from other sources. Some sites are intended to help you diagnose yourself if you have common symptoms, and to offer advice on basic home treatments and first aid for common ailments and injuries (sites like WebMD would fall into this category). Other sites are aimed at helping people with more complex health problems understand them better. Whatever kind of site you need for your own query, the important thing to establish is who runs it, and why. Looking at the web address is a good place to start. If it ends in ‘.gov’ it is a government run website. ‘.edu’ means it is run by an educational establishment. ‘.org’ will be a charity or a recognized organization. ‘.com’ will usually be a commercial site. When dealing with a commercial site look at who is sponsoring it. If it is a drug company, while the information may not be false, it will likely be very biased towards certain forms of treatment, and may not give you the full picture.
How Credible is the Information?
If you are reading an article about a health condition, especially one that recommends any form of action, then make sure there are credible sources cited and links to relevant research. Anyone can post an article on the web about a form of treatment that worked for them or someone they knew, but this is meaningless as anything more than an anecdote without references to credible scientific information.
If you want to use health information technology to find out more about a health issue, then it is really important you are wise about which sites and sources you choose to trust. It is also a good idea to look at many different good sources, to get the most rounded view of all the knowledge that is out there about your condition.