Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Tangled Web: Navigating Health Information on the Internet

     Did you know that you are a member of a group that makes up 61% of all adults in the U.S. and is growing every day? That’s right, you are what the Pew Internet and American Life Project calls an “e-patient.” What is an e-patient? Well, simply put, an e-patient is anyone who looks to the Internet as a source for health information.

     The web is a great resource for just about any subject you can think of, health included. However, the sad fact is that for every web page that offers high quality, reliable information, there are quite a few more that are…less than reliable. For that reason I thought it might be a good idea to discuss how to pick out the good from the bad. The following tips will help you do just that. Don’t think they apply only to health resources, feel free to use them for any website you come across.

1. Know the Source. This is one of the most important steps in judging the reliability of a website. A reliable source should provide the name of the author or organization that created the information, as well as their credentials. Reliable health sources are typically authored by well-known experts within the medical field, governmental agencies such as the CDC or FDA, peer-reviewed medical journals, and reputable health organizations.

2. Know the Source’s Sources. Not only should you be able to trust the author of a particular resource, you should also be able to trust that they are getting their information from a reliable source. Let’s say a medical expert writes an article claiming that incidences of lung cancer are dramatically increasing. Is he just rehashing this information from one blog post he read, or did he investigate it further and find national studies or other reliable sources to back up this claim?

3. Recognize Possible Biases. For years people believed that cigarettes could actually improve your health. This terrible misconception grew out of “research” and “studies” conducted by tobacco companies themselves. It can be very easy to manipulate data in a way that is favorable to your goals. Another common source of bias is advertising. If a website or blog gives a favorable review to the newest medical technology while also being paid to run ads for that same product, the source may be biased. Or, that product may actually be great, which is why it is always important to…

4. Seek Out Other Sources. When you are preparing to make a big purchase, do you buy it from the first place you go or do you shop around and try to find the best quality and value? The same principle applies to information. Just because the first website you visited says you should use at least 15 SPF does not make it true. Upon further investigation you would find that the consensus among most experts is that you should really use at least 30 SPF.

     My final piece of advice is that you should always trust your personal physician above any source you could find on the web. Just because your symptoms sound similar to the symptoms of a deadly disease you read about online does not mean you have it. Always seek counsel from a real-life medical professional before you make any health decisions.

By: Shawn McNally

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