We’ve all done it. You hear something that sparked your interest and quickly plugged it into Google and clicked on one of the top three suggestions. The internet may have found exactly what you are looking for – quick information about health, nutrition, exercise, injury, symptoms of illness… you name it. But is it accurate? How can you tell if you’ve been given an opinion or a fact? “Fake news” made headlines this political election season and we don’t want to be fooled by websites that are selling or promoting a specific product instead of providing information to help you make educated decisions.
Using information online to create a self-diagnosis can be dangerous. It can lead to a misdiagnosis, a missed diagnosis, and potentially a disrupted doctor-patient relationship.
Websites like Wikipedia can be an extraordinary source of information, but know that the information available is provided from readers just like you. Perhaps the information is spot on, and perhaps it is completely made up. While there is no foolproof way to guarantee that every article you read is a trusted resource, here are a few helpful hints to help you determine if you should trust the information:
1. Check the specific website domain.
Look up at the top to check the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) to see the web address. On first glance, does it contain a website that appears trustworthy? Web addresses like www.hopkinsmedicine.org would be much more trustworthy than “www.news/hotbodskillz.net.” If we don’t deliberately look at the address, we can easily get drawn into websites that are not credible.
2. Who is the owner of the website?
Is this a trusted company or organization? Is this a personal blog? Personal opinions may or may not give you accurate information. It may be impossible to verify each source, so using trusted websites limit the likelihood of being misled. Blogs can be good sources of motivation or inspiration, but make sure that you aren’t using these sources as places to locate health information, unless it is a known and trusted source.
3. Who is the author of the article?
Can you see the credentials of the author? Is the author providing an opinion, offering a diagnosis, benefitting from product sales, or practicing outside of their scope? This can be one of the trickiest areas to check. Sometimes it is impossible to know if the author is providing information outside of their area of expertise. When we see credentials like “Ph.D.” we often associate that person as an expert in the topic that they are writing about regardless of their area of study.
Websites who provide health information (e.g. the Mayo Clinic) will often publish the names of the authors, or groups of authors, that can help you identify the credibility of the information that has been published.
4. Identify products are being sold or advertised.
Conflicts of interest may lead a website or author to publish information that may not be accurate in order to sell a product or lead you click on an advertisement. Use caution when listening to advice that is driving a product sale of any kind. Using fear as a sales tactic is common. Cancer, cleanses, and weight loss are three hot topics. These topics will commonly appear in the titles of “click-bait” articles to drive product sales. When in doubt, look for scientific, peer-reviewed evidence to support the author or product claims through a search engine like pubmed.com.
5. Listen for tones of sarcasm or satire.
There are many websites that share information that is entirely fake, created for entertainment purposes only. These articles are often shared on social media and can be mistaken for genuine news. Examples: dailycurrant.com, theonion.com, americangauntlet.com, nationalreport.net, capnews.com. Articles from these websites are not to be taken seriously for any health information, ever.
6. Verify the information you found with at least one other source.
Just as with a medical diagnosis, having a second source or opinion can help us improve accuracy. We often click on articles and titles that support our confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, or favor, information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs.). Perform a quick double-check to make sure that you aren’t being led down the wrong path. Accurate health information shouldn’t be a “secret”, “magic”, “unbelievable” or contain any other inflammatory language.
Helpful tips for searching for information:
- No information from the web should replace a conversation with your physician.
- Self-diagnoses from searching symptoms online can make it harder for your physician because you have already presented with a suspected diagnosis.
- Instead of typing directly into Google (or the search engine you prefer) try first opening a website like WebMD.com orMayoclinic.com and searching directly inside the trusted resource.
We all have our favorite places to locate information. Here are my top 6 health-related websites that consistently provide accurate, high quality information:
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
American Heart Association
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Cancer Society
U.S. National Library of Medicine