How to use health care news Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
What does the latest study, the flashiest ad or the scariest headline really mean? If there is one subject Americans can’t seem to get enough of, it’s health information.

“Web sites devoted to health care are among the most popular sites on the Internet,” says Eugene Sun, M.D. “Everywhere you turn, there is information about every known topic related to good health.”

Smart Business spoke to Sun about how to sort out the good information from the bad on the Web.

What are some precautions we should take when evaluating medical information from the Internet?

Knowledge is a good thing, but you have to be careful. As you bounce from Web page to Web page, be sure to check who is in charge of the site. You might start on a reputable page, but a link might take you to a site run by someone with a very different agenda.

How can we tell if a report or health care study is reliable?

Check where the study was published. The most reliable studies are found in peer-reviewed clinical journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association or The New England Journal of Medicine. Also, find out if a company that could benefit from the results funded the study. That’s not always a warning sign, but it can be.

What are some examples of reliable sources on the Internet?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends sites that end in ‘.gov.’ They are sponsored by the federal government, like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.hhs.gov), the FDA (www.fda.gov), and the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), to name a few.

Look for ‘.edu’ sites, which are run by universities or medical schools, such as Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, or maintained by other health care facility sites, like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic.

Other reliable sources are ‘.org’ sites maintained by not-for-profit groups whose focus is research and teaching the public about specific conditions, such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association.

Be aware that sites whose addresses end in ‘.com’ are usually commercial sites and are often selling products or services.

What other types of things should we be checking with the sites?

MedlinePlus (medlineplus.gov) is an excellent place to start on the Internet. It is a service of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). MedlinePlus offers high-quality information on more than 700 diseases and conditions. It does not advertise nor endorse any company or product on its site. I recommend referring to the following checklist from MedlinePlus to avoid unreliable health information when you’re surfing the Web.

Be a cyber skeptic. Does the site make health claims that seem too good to be true? Does it promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results? Beware of claims of a ‘breakthrough’ or one remedy to cure a variety of illnesses. Ask your personal physician for an opinion.

Check for currency. Is the information current? Look for dates on documents. Click on a few links on the site. If there are a lot of broken links, the site may not be kept up-to-date.

Beware of bias. Who pays for the site? Consider how that might affect the information offered. Be cautious of sites that do not identify their affiliation, perspective or source of information.

Protect your privacy. Health information should be confidential. Does the site have a ‘Privacy Policy’ link? Does it tell you what information is collected? If it states ‘We share information with companies that can provide you with useful products,’ then your information isn't private.

Consult with your health professional. Information that you find on a Web site does not replace your doctor’s advice. Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions. Review the information with a health care provider who knows you, and can help you put what you have learned into perspective. And never change anything about your health care unless your doctor says it’s OK.

For more information, check out MedlinePlus’s Web site at www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/heal thywebsurfing.html.

EUGENE SUN, M.D., M.B.A., vice president of medical affairs for HealthAmerica and HealthAssurance. Reach him at (412) 553-7385.