More than 100,000 websites publish health information. Recent survey by Pew Research Center found that almost every third American visits internet for the sole purpose of seeking health information.
- Which websites can I trust?
- How to know if the source is credible and trustworthy?
- How to read a study and see if its meant for me?
- Which information should I avoid?
- Should I trust everything shared on health forums, based on personal experiences?
- Bonus Tips on finding answers to questions like “does it work”, “is my diagnosis correct”, “what questions to ask my physician”
Health consumers and online information
- Most people (almost 29%) use internet to decide whether they needed to see a doctor or not, while some use it to cross-check their diagnosis and further course of action. (WHO eHealth survey)
- Close to 60% of newly diagnosed patients carry internet information into the consulting rooms or seek a second opinion based on that. (Pew Internet Project survey)
Evidently, the most searched topics are specific diseases or conditions, treatments or procedures, and doctors or other health professionals.
Theoretically, internet is cheaper than a phone call with much wider access. As a result, it holds potential to reach the underserved populations in remote areas.
However, the problem begins when the information accessed is inaccurate or completely wrong.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services once compared it to drinking from a firehose where you don’t even know what the source of the water is.
Where the problem starts
Seven in ten U.S. adults track at least one health indicator like weight, diet, exercise routine, blood pressure, blood sugar or sleep pattern. Based on the result, they also follow the given advice without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information.
And this is how people go wrong:
- Inaccessible or overly technical language
The internet is filled with technical jargon which only the professionals can understand. Even 48% of trained nurses find Internet-based health information unclear.
In such cases, it becomes extremely difficult for an average Joe to make sense out of any research or judge if it is intended for him.
- Forums and opinions instead of fact based information
It is a common practice for people to participate in forums and discuss their health issues. Even well-intentioned individuals may provide information based on personal experience, which might not hold good for another person. Most alarming situation is one where people engage in fraudulent practices to make money and do more harm.
- The intent to capitalize on sensational information and drive traffic
This is another thing common to internet where there are majority of unbalanced views. There is little or poor referencing to scientific data making the information highly biased. Warning signs include ‘sounds too good to be true’ claims, products advertised as cure-alls, and phrases like scientific breakthrough, exclusive product, miraculous cure or secret ingredient.
- Lack of evaluation skills in the consumer
Even the well-educated users find themselves incapable of evaluating the credentials and qualifications of web authors. This renders them vulnerable to misunderstanding information sourced online.
What to do
Keep Calm and Look for the trust markers for health websites, advises a 2005 survey.
- Ease of usage
As a health website, the primary concern is to provide accurate information rather than overwhelm readers by distracting design features. So, a trustworthy website would be easy to use and navigate with no hidden links.
- Attribution to all the sources used
This is of critical importance as no attribution means no scientific backing, and hence, credibility of the advice becomes unverifiable.
If you don’t see a research cited against any fact mentioned, take it as inaccurate by default.
How legible are the sources used is well another story, since not all studies are equally applicable to everyone on the globe. If you really want to check whether a research is genuine or not, a good website to check it is on PubMed – their research database is genuine and verified.
- Advice from an expert
There must be a clearly identified authorship with credentials mentioned in the author bio like fitness expert, doctor, surgeon, RYT, etc. In case none of it is available, the advice becomes questionable unless the sources used are credible and thorough enough to support it.
However, some quality standards can be ensured by going through the editorial review process of the website too.
- An impartial and independent advice
Regardless of the issue, the piece of information should weigh both sides of the argument and then deliver an advice or opinion. This will provide you with ample knowledge, empowerment and freedom in terms of decision-making and assessing its place in your life.
- Reasoning behind the advice clearly explained
It should become clear in the beginning who the information is intended for – the general population or the professionals. In case of general public, the language is jargon free and organized in a logical fashion. Plus, the reason behind the advice is logically explained. If you don’t get the pattern, move on to the next window.
Other trust markers include:
- Opportunities for feedback and interactivity (email or comments) to clarify doubts,
- Comprehensive glossary for indispensable technical terms used on the website,
- Linked sources and their credibility,
- Integrity of advice and opinions, and
- Disclosure of mission, purpose, processes and standards for posting information.
Checking the sources – Learning to read a study
Credible Internet sources follow a tradition of trust. They include journals, universities and recognized research centers, libraries, government agencies, and professional organizations.
Credibility is reflected in two dimensions: authoritativeness and trustworthiness. (I’ll come to trustworthy websites later in this article)
Typically, physicians and healthcare organizations are perceived as authoritative while those associated with medical schools are deemed more credible by their research involvement.
While reading a study, two things hold the highest importance: statistics and procedure.
If a study is conducted on a small population, say only 15-50 volunteers for a month or so, it is very likely to be irrelevant.
See the mouthwash study we pulled apart: Why your mouthwash will not kill you.
Similarly, the population on which the research was done matters too. A hispanic population will not share characteristics of the rest. What if the study was done on a young healthy population? It may not apply to you if are over 50 and diabetic. Also, if all participants were males, it becomes useless for females.
A randomized trial is considered better than any other process. It pays to look for phrases like Double blind or single blind trials as this ensures the highest level of randomization of population as well as unbiased outcomes. Studies which follow such procedure are most relevant.
Our Medical Expert, Dr. Praful Schroff points out – “Studies should provide a clear in-depth look at the methodology so that other people can replicate it – if process is not clear, or not a clear progression from method to results, then it is questionable.”
All studies make use of a lot of assumptions and thus may have some exceptions or shortcomings. If the document lays them out in open, then highly likely, it is trustworthy.
For further insights on learning to make sense of a study, read this.
Assessing validity of the message/advice
- Currency of information
Date of last update, frequency of updating the site or article, methods involved in this process.
FYI: We update our each article every two months 🙂
- Accuracy of information
Credibility and trustworthiness of source, author and argument presented. This actually requires a comprehensive approach, but substance and depth of content may enhance accuracy.
Tiny topic, deep research? Great article!
Solving the dilemma of “does it work”
When this question comes to your head, the next question you must ask is “compared to what”.
If a fitness program or diet plan says it works, try to look for reference. Does it work in comparison to zero dieting or absolutely no workout at all? Well, then definitely it will work. And let me tell you, these reference points would not be given out easily. So, always look for clues hidden inside the article that will give you an idea of what it might be.
Similarly ask questions when judging the relevance of a study: Who did it work for? When and how did the outcomes changed?
“Most workouts that show test subjects undergoing transformation, have gone through the process under strictly controlled conditions – strict timetable, meals, supplements, etc. Before going for it, ask how far can you go to replicate these conditions? What if test subjects were paid to participate? This is a motivation that you won’t have.” warns Dr. Schroff.
Who can you trust
Any website which fulfils the above criteria can be deemed as trustworthy.
MedlinePlus, NHS Direct Online, and the National Organization of Rare Diseases, HealthFinder, University journals, etc. are some examples.
Consulting the physician or an expert, however should never be avoided.
Based on the search engine ranking and page view statistics, Wikipedia is considered a great source of online health information. I, however, do not trust it unless I go through each of the cited links, which most of the times, is cumbersome.
So, this is what you can do:
- Read, and gather as much information as you can from the internet.
- Discuss it in detail with your doctor.
This will give you a better perspective of things while making the doctor aware of your doubts.
- It is essential that you discuss every trivial issue and ask as many questions as possible. This is true for web content too.
- If you have any doubts about the content, or you need more clarity on the topic, leave a comment, or email the editors. The way it responds to consumer queries will tell you if they can be trusted or not.
A joint decision-making – by you, internet and the health expert, is what is the present consensus.
Finally, we at Workout Trends are making every effort to provide you with the best possible information in the most unbiased form. And we’d appreciate your feedback on this.
- Is there anything we missed out?
- Do you have any concerns regarding the content we provide or the process we employ?
- Are we doing a good job yet?
Let us know what you think. You can put your thoughts in the comments below, or shoot us an email us right away at: [email protected]
Looking forward to hear from you soon! 🙂
References:  Kummervold, P., Chronaki, C., Lausen, B., Prokosch, H., Rasmussen, J., Santana, S., Staniszewski, A., & Wangberg, S. (2008). eHealth Trends in Europe 2005-2007: A Population-Based Survey Journal of Medical Internet Research, 10 (4) DOI: 10.2196/jmir.1023 ^Back to Top^  Susannah Fox. The Engaged E-patient Population. Pew Research Internet Project. ^Back to Top^  Cline RJ, Haynes KM. Consumer health information seeking on the Internet: the state of the art. Health Educ Res. 2001 Dec;16(6):671-92. Review. PubMed PMID: 11780707. ^Back to Top^  Elizabeth Sillencea, Pam Briggsa, Peter Harrisb and Lesley Fishwicka. Going online for health advice: Changes in usage and trust practices over the last five years. School of Psychology and Sports Science, Northumbria University. doi: 10.1016/j.intcom.2006.10.002. ^Back to Top^  How do I know the research is trustworthy? (http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/research/primer/researchtrustworthy.asp). ^Back to Top^  Laurent, M., & Vickers, T. (2009). Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter? Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16 (4), 471-479 DOI: 10.1197/jamia.M3059 ^Back to Top^  Other statistical data was picked from Pew Internet Research center (http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/PIP_HealthOnline.pdf)  Helpful link - http://www.trustortrash.org/
Last Updated: July 7th, 2014
Next Scheduled Update: Sept 7th, 2014