How to carefully consider the reliability of health care news sources Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

What does the latest study, the flashiest ad or the scariest headline about health issues really mean? If there is one thing Americans can’t seem to get enough of, it’s information about their health.

The Internet is a great source of information. It’s quick, easy and convenient. But not all of the information on the Web is credible. When it comes to your health, don’t believe everything you read.

“Web sites devoted to health care are among the most popular sites on the Internet,” says Dr. John Wallendjack, vice president of Medical Affairs for HealthAmerica. “Everywhere you turn, there is information about every known topic related to good health.”

Smart Business spoke with Wallendjack about how to identify good information on the Web and weed out the bad.

What precautions should someone take when evaluating medical information on the Web?

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.

Before you believe any health-related information you find on the Web, find out who is responsible for the information on the site. The easiest way to do this is to look at the site’s home page. If the home page doesn’t tell you who publishes the site, look for a link that says ‘About us’ or ‘About this site.’ Often, this link will be at the bottom of the home page.

Clicking on this link will usually take you to a page that explains what person or organization is responsible for the information on the site.

How can you tell if a report or a 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 federal government sources such as 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, such as the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic.

Other reliable sources are ‘.org’ sites maintained by not-for-profit groups whose focus is on research and teaching the public about specific conditions. These include 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.

Where can someone go to verify the accuracy of health information received in unsolicited e-mails?

Any e-mail messages should be carefully evaluated. The origin of the message and its purpose should be considered. Some companies or organizations use e-mail to advertise certain products or attract people to their Web sites, and the accuracy of health information may be influenced by the desire to promote a product or service.

What other types of things should someone be aware of when seeking medical information online?

MedlinePlus (medlineplus.gov) is an excellent place to start on the Internet. It is a service of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. 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.

To avoid being taken in by unreliable health information online, adhere to the following checklist from MedlinePlus.

  • 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 whether the information is 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 it collects? 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 who 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.

Remember that anyone can publish anything they want on the Internet, whether it’s true or not. It’s up to you to determine which information is true and credible.

For more information on healthy Web surfing, visit www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthywebsurfing.html.

Dr. John Wallendjack is vice president of Medical Affairs for HealthAmerica. Reach him at jwallendjack@cvty.com.