How to research profitably for health information on the internet

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Researching ‘blind’ on your own, perhaps looking into what you think are your most important symptoms, is fraught with danger. There is a strong possibility that you will stumble across irrelevant information which leads you down a vortex of nerve-wracking possibilities. Subjecting yourself to unnecessary and inapplicable anxiety is disturbing.

First consult your GP and as part of the discussion ask for guidance on how best to inform yourself. Most good doctors have now learnt to make the internet their ally. There is great benefit to both patient and doctor if the patient learns, for example, the correct terminology for a symptom or the basics of anatomy. For example, what is eructation? (burping) What is histology? (The study of the microscopic structure of tissues: necessary to many correct diagnoses.) What is an MRI? (a magnetic resonance scan which delineates internal structures without the use of X-rays.)

Many sensible websites now exist delivering trustworthy, verifiable information on health. The NHS for example offers a comprehensive guide to conditions, symptoms and treatments, including what to do and when to get help. (Health A to Z ).

There are also useful instructions here on where to get help. I quote:

Help us help you get the treatment you need.

  • For help from a GP – use your GP surgery’s website, use an online service or app, or call the surgery.
  • For urgent medical help – use the NHS 111 online service or call 111 if you’re unable to get help online.
  • For life-threatening emergencies – call 999 for an ambulance.

If you’re advised to go to hospital, it’s important to go.”

In many parts of the country there are now very long waiting times for an ambulance. If the patient is capable of getting into a car or taxi it may well be quicker and safer to use this form of transport but there are obvious disadvantages. If the patient deteriorates on the journey there will be no medical support or resuscitation equipment available. Depending on the circumstances the patient may have internal injuries which are not immediately obvious, but which may worsen or even be aggravated by travelling.

It would be wise at least to take a companion with you, as well as the driver to deal with any eventuality (e.g., if the patient vomits.)

Other trustworthy sites do exist for researching health information.

For example, the Mayo Clinic (highly reputed medical facility in Texas, USA) offers a comprehensive guide to diagnosis and treatment from an American perspective.

These reputable organisations are a very good place to start.

However, the correct diagnosis and hence the correct treatment can only be established with proper medical help. Information on the internet is no substitute for a doctor’s listening, observation, examination, and diagnostic skills.

The following guide to navigating health websites is drawn directly from the Mayo Clinic site. It makes a lot of sense.

Questions to Ask Before Trusting a website.

As you search online, you are likely to find websites for many health agencies and organizations that are not well-known. By answering the following questions, you should be able to find more information about these websites. A lot of these details might be found in the website’s “About Us” section.

1. Who sponsors/hosts the website? Is that information easy to find?

Websites cost money to create and update. Is the source of funding (sponsor) clear? Knowing who is funding the website may give you insight into the mission or goal of the site. Sometimes, the website address (called a URL) is helpful. For example:

  • .gov identifies a U.S. government agency.
  • .edu identifies an educational institution, like a school, college, or university
  • .org usually identifies non-profit organizations (such as professional groups; scientific, medical, or research societies; advocacy groups)
  • .com identifies commercial websites (such as businesses, pharmaceutical companies, and sometimes hospitals) These sites may be fuelled by the profit motive, rather than your best interest, and be less dependable. So beware!

2. Who wrote the information? Who reviewed it?

Authors and contributors are often, but not always, identified. If the author is listed, ask yourself—is this person an expert in the field? (You can check the individual doctor’s affiliations online.) Does this person work for an organization and, if so, what are the goals of the organization? A contributor’s connection to the website, and any financial stake he or she has in the information on the website, should be clear and raise doubts as to truthfulness.

Is the health information written or reviewed by a healthcare professional? Dependable websites will tell you where their health information came from and how and when it was reviewed.

Trustworthy websites will have contact information that you can use to reach the site’s sponsor or authors. An email address, phone number, and/or mailing address might be listed at the bottom of every page or on a separate “About Us” or “Contact Us” page.

Be careful about testimonials. Personal stories may be helpful and comforting, but not everyone experiences health problems in the same way. Also, there is a big difference between a website, blog, or social media page developed by a single person interested in a topic as opposed to a website developed using strong scientific evidence (that is, information gathered from research).

No information should replace seeing a doctor or other health professional who can give you advice that caters to your specific situation.

3. When was the information written?

Look for websites that stay current with their health information. You don’t want to make decisions about your care based on out-of-date information. Often, the bottom of the page will have a date. Pages on the same site may be updated at different times—some may be updated more often than others. Older information isn’t useless, but using the most current, evidence-based information is best.

4. What is the purpose of the site?

Why was the site created? Know the motive or goal of the website so you can better judge its content. Is the purpose of the site to inform or explain? Or is it trying to sell a product? Choose information based on scientific evidence rather than one person’s opinion.

5. Is your privacy protected? Does the website clearly state a privacy policy?

Read the website’s privacy policy. It is usually at the bottom of the page or on a separate page titled “Privacy Policy” or “Our Policies.” If a website says it uses “cookies,” your information may not be private. While cookies (i.e. trackers) may enhance your web experience, they can also compromise your online privacy—so it is important to read how the website will use your information. You can choose to disable the use of cookies through your Internet browser settings. This may be wise.

6. How can I protect my health information?

If you are asked to share personal information, be sure to find out how the information will be used. Secure websites that collect personal information responsibly have an “s” after “http” in the start of their website address (https://) and often require that you create a username and password.

These precautions can help better protect your information:

  • Use common sense when browsing the Internet. Do not open unexpected links. Hover your mouse over a link to confirm that clicking it will take you to a reputable website.
  • Use a strong password. Include a variation of numbers, letters, and symbols. Change it frequently. As we have stressed, your health is your most important asset.
  • Use two-factor authentication when you can. This requires the use of two different types of personal information to log into your mobile devices or accounts.
  • Do not enter sensitive information over public Wi-Fi that is not secure. This includes Wi-Fi that is not password protected.
  • Be especially careful about including any photos, especially of body parts. Unscrupulous scammers abound.

Be careful what information you share over social media sites. This can include addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. Learn how you can keep your information private.

7. Does the website offer quick and easy solutions to your health problems? Are miracle cures promised?

Be careful of websites or companies that claim any one remedy will cure a lot of different illnesses. Question dramatic writing or cures that seem too good to be true. Make sure you can find other websites with the same information. Even if the website links to a trustworthy source, it doesn’t mean that the site has the other organization’s endorsement or support.

Health and Medical Apps

Mobile medical applications (“apps”) are apps you can put on your smartphone. Health apps can help you track your eating habits, physical activity, test results, or other information. But anyone can develop a health app—for any reason— and apps may include inaccurate or misleading information. Make sure you know who made any app you use.

When you download an app, it may ask for your location, your email, or other information. Consider what the app is asking from you—make sure the questions are relevant to the app and that you feel comfortable sharing this information. Remember, there is a difference between sharing your personal information through your doctor’s online health portal and posting on third-party social media or health sites.

Social Media and Health Information

Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are online communities where people connect with friends, family, and strangers. Sometimes, you might find health information or health news on social media. Some of this information may be true, and some of it may not be. Recognize that just because a post is from a friend or colleague it does not necessarily mean it’s true or scientifically accurate.

Cross-check the source of the information, and make sure the author is credible. Fact-checking websites can also help you figure out if a story is reliable.

A Quick Checklist

You can use the following checklist to help make sure that the health information you are reading online can be trusted. You might want to keep this checklist by your computer.

Trust Yourself and Talk to Your Doctor

Use common sense and good judgment when looking at health information online. There are websites on nearly every health topic, and many have no rules overseeing the quality of the information provided. Use the information you find online as one tool to become more informed. Don’t count on any one website and check your sources. Discuss what you find with your doctor for guidance before making any changes to your health care.

(Mayo Clinic advice)

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