Health information online: how to tell the trash from the truth

4 Jul

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by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

One thing I’ve observed since my heart attack and accompanying obsession with All Things Cardiac: there is a lot of embarrassingly questionable trash out there on the internet.

And it’s not just all those badly written blogs flogging magical health products to vulnerable heart patients that make me cringe.  I have found snake-oil salesmen with the letters M.D. after their names pushing their own miracle-cure supplements on their self-promoting websites.  I’ve found fine print at the end of medical journal studies revealing that the lead authors are on the take from the drug company whose product is being ‘studied’.

This morning, I happened upon a ‘natural home remedy’ website that offered stupefyingly unfounded advice like:

“Drink lemon juice every day to prevent heart disease!”

Really?  Seriously?

Before you run out the door to buy more lemon juice, consider the Three D’s rule of evaluating all medical or health information you find on the internet:  

But first, consider what the letters at the end of a website’s address (the URL) can tell you:

  • .org = a not-for-profit site (www.myheartsisters.org)
  • .edu = an educational institution (www.mayo.edu)
  • .gov = a government agency ( http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov)
  • .net  = a computer or tech site (www.canadiansocialresearch.net)
  • .ca =  a Canadian website (www.heartandstroke.ca – other countries will have URLs ending in .uk (Britain) or .au (Australia) or .ru (Russia), etc.
  • .com = originally a commercial business (www.google.com) but now almost any website can have a .com address

The experts at Mayo Clinic (considered, by the way, a consistently trustworthy and credible source of medical information, including alternative and complementary therapies) recommend that we assess the reliability of all health information online by using these Three D’s:

  • Dates: Search for the most recent information you can find. Reputable websites include a date for each article posted.
  • Documentation: This is critically important. Check for the source of information posted.  Research cited from major medical centres, universities and government agencies are the most credible. Beware of officious-sounding sources that ask you to part with your money. (When my daughter Larissa was a starving student in university, for example, she joked one day that she was going to set up her own registered charitable foundation: The No More Mr. Noodles Foundation – with Larissa as the sole beneficiary!) Many sources quoted by websites and blogs are the medical equivalent of the No More Mr. Noodles Foundation. You want solid science, not marketing. Be wary of commercial sites or personal testimonials that push a single point of view or sell miracle cure products. And stay away from sites that don’t clearly distinguish between scientific evidence and marketing of their products – yes, even when the sellers have the letters M.D. after their names.
  • Double-checking: Visit several health websites and compare the information each offers.  If you search all over a website for supporting evidence, or you can’t find credible research-based, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to back up the site’s claims, be wary of the information. And before you follow any medical advice, first ask your doctor for guidance.

Online health info seekers might be forgiven if they give up on what at times is a search for a needle in a haystack. Only a small percentage of health sites display the source and date of the information on their pages.

Look for the Health On The Net Code certification badge on health sites (like this one has earned for reliable health information online – just scroll down to the bottom of this page).

The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, working with industry experts, has identified six types of information that should be publicly disclosed to online health seekers:

  • the identity of the website’s sponsors/funders
  • the site’s purpose
  • the source of the information provided
  • privacy policies to protect users’ personal information
  • how users can provide feedback
  • how the content is updated

Of the 102 websites reviewed for this report, none met all six of the disclosure criteria, and only six complied with more than three criteria. Just 4% of “frequently visited” health websites disclosed the source of the information on their pages, and only 2% disclosed how often the content is updated. Less-popular health sites fared even worse: 0.3% of these sites listed their content’s source and only 0.1% disclosed how the content is updated.

WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease offers more basic tips for getting good medical information from the internet:

  • Remember your gender: When reading studies, look for information on the study participants — sometimes buried deep within the research — to identify gender, age, ethnicity, and other factors.
  • Wiki know-how: Don’t smirk. The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia can be a useful research tool since it provides a lot of information in one place — if you look for ‘unflagged’ information with cited references to medical journals, universities, and institutions.
  • Jump to the next page: Research shows that most people tend to click only on the first 10 items that pop up on a search engine’s results page, rather than clicking on the “next page” arrow. Click through for a few pages to see if any other results catch your eye.
  • Refine your search: If you Google “women’s heart disease”, you’ll get about 68 million results. Searching for “women’s heart disease blueberries” and the results suddenly drop down to 274,000. Add the word “smoothies” and you get 34,400 results.
  • Don’t self-diagnose: Internet information can be easily misinterpreted, leading people to think that a case of the sniffles is a rare allergic reaction. Use the internet to educate yourself on the topics that you want to discuss with your doctor in greater detail.

For more helpful information in telling the difference between trash and truth, particularly in the area of alternative or complementary medicine, visit the Mayo Clinic site.

© Carolyn Thomas  www.myheartsisters.org

See also:

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6 Responses to “Health information online: how to tell the trash from the truth”

  1. G Garcia May 23, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    There is so much unadulterated garbage out there online! I found this post very very useful.

    Like

  2. KayRay May 22, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    So much good basic info on online resources — and all in one article. Thanx for this, Carolyn.

    Like

  3. Dr. Bob August 16, 2011 at 1:43 am #

    Good info here on identifying online ‘trash’ - and there is SO much of it out there, some of it written, as you would say, by people with the letters M.D. after their names. Well done with the enormous amount of work on the website.

    Best Wishes,
    B.

    Like

  4. Cate July 22, 2011 at 12:49 am #

    “Look for the Health On The Net Code badge on health sites…”

    This code certification is commonly seen in credible European sites but not so frequently in the U.S. for some reason. Could it be the commercialization of many American websites?

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas July 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

      Hello Cate – I’ve noticed the same thing. I even had an American physician once tell me “there ought to be some kind of certification that shows a website content is not unduly influenced by corporate financial ties”. When I said: “Well, actually, there IS – it’s the HON Code!” he stopped a moment and said, “Yeah, I think I may have heard of that….”

      Thanks for your comment here,
      Cheers,
      C.

      Like

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