We find a lot of health-related information on the internet. Many of these sites provide excellent information, but not all of them are trustworthy. So how can we judge the reliability of online health-related information we are reading?
This is without question the age of the internet. Love it or hate it, the internet has invaded every sphere of our lives, be it social, professional, or even our personal space.
Healthcare is no different. Every day, thousands of people inquire about various health issues on the internet.
In the case of healthcare, information is disseminated in two forms: live consultations with doctors and other healthcare professionals; and fixed knowledge sources, such as online articles.
The most accessed and most available information is the second type. You must have done it too, searching the web for symptoms whenever you feel any discomfort or illness?!
The question is, how much can you rely on these online health-related sites to give you the right information?
This is a very sensitive issue as healthcare advice can sometimes be the difference between life and death. Accepting and acting on unreliable advice could cause damage to your body and/or prevent serious conditions being treated appropriately at the earliest opportunity.
This is why online medical advice needs some analysis. This article provides you with the information you will need to judge the reliability of online health-related information.
Where can you find reliable information?
Firstly, in the case of healthcare, the government and government-controlled bodies such as, in England, the Department of Health & Social Care, Public Health England and the NHS are reliable sources. Whatever inefficiencies they have, government sites usually provide reliable, tested and regularly reviewed and updated information when it comes to healthcare.
But be very wary of information found in Q&A sites like Quora. Information on these types of online health-related sites is not reliable as there is sometimes irrelevant and wrong information given by people who may or may not be related to the sector you are asking about or people with rather spurious intent.
The exception to information distilled by the general public is closed groups relating to specific conditions. But note the information should not be treated as medical information. These groups are where people talk about their personal experiences of a specific condition and that could be very valuable information for an individual in a similar situation. But remember that health situations vary from person to person. The solutions that worked for the other person might not work for you. You should never change your medication without seeking the advice of your healthcare practitioner.
Certified websites like WebMD are a good information source globally. In this sense, Plex is also a good site to search for such information.
Journals are also a great source. Published papers are the best source of reliable, online health-related information. These sites provide tested research, proven by experts and laboratories around the world. However, such published works may not be accessible by common people, firstly due to not having the technical knowledge to analyse the information and secondly because of paywalls preventing free access.
Information to verify before trusting a source
Whilst searching health-related websites can be a sensible option to find information about specific health concerns, it is important to understand that you should never try to self-diagnose potentially serious conditions even when accessing the most reliable sources of information such as those mentioned at the beginning of this article.
If the information you find triggers concerns, you must make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible as many symptoms are common denominators in a multitude of conditions with varying levels of severity. Most of the time, your symptom will be of something comparatively minor, not the major illness you may have convinced yourself you have!
But let’s look at some ways to help you assess the reliability of different online health-related sites.
A starting point for the authenticity of an information source lies in the backing for the source. All these health-related websites are run by various organisations and if you know which type of organisation is running the website you are visiting, it will allow you to evaluate the information you are getting. Clearly, for example, if you are looking at a website that predominantly sells products, the information available is likely to be somewhat biased.
It’s pretty easy to get an indication of the backing for the source by looking at the end of the URL of the website you are visiting.
We have already mentioned the reliability of government sites and sites of government-controlled bodies. If you see a site with .gov tags at the end, it is run by the government. No other organisation is allowed to use the .gov ending on their website domain.
.edu sites are related to publications and are usually run by universities or journals, which are also a good source of information.
.org and .org.uk tags are mainly not-for-profit, non-government organisations (NGO) such as charities. These NGO websites are fairly accurate too, such as CANCERactive. However, there is no legislation that prevents other types of organisations using these tags, so do check the information provided on the website.
.com, .co.uk and most other tags generally mean commercial sites.
All registered organisations, including limited companies and charities, must clearly display their charity and/or company registration number on their website. You can even check that information with a quick, free search on Companies House.
So where does Healthy Life Essex (HLE) fit into this picture of reliable health-related information?
HLE prides itself on providing a broad range of reliable health-related information, but we do not provide medical information.
HLE was launched in 2005, initially as a hard copy magazine, as a wellbeing resource to help people lead happier, healthier, greener lifestyles.
HLE takes a holistic view on healthcare with an emphasis on prevention and natural well-being. And whilst as already stated the NHS is a reliable source of medical information, it is only now moving from being what we have described as our National Illness Service to a more comprehensive health service that recognises the benefits of natural interventions such as gardening as therapy and, as such, has introduced social prescribing link workers to GP surgeries; and has also recognised the historical over-reliance on medication prescribed by GPs which has caused many health issues both in the short and longer-term.
Whilst HLE is a private organisation, it is a registered not-for-profit social enterprise. Information on the HLE website is provided by professionals in their field and/or researched and sourced from appropriate third-party experts. Information is designed to encourage people to think differently about healthcare and not rely on a ‘magic bullet’ approach.
When you are reading an article, on any online health-related website, check out who the authors are. Usually, at the end of the article, a short introduction of the author is provided. If it’s not provided you can easily search online about them. A simple Google search will tell you if that person is related to your sector or if they have adequate expertise.
You should also confirm the transparency of the whole situation such as if the articles are being reviewed by professionals, or if you can contact the author or the website sponsors if you want. (You are always welcome to contact the HLE editors) /box]
A serious mistake you might be making is to read personal experience blogs about health issues and blindly follow them. This type of article might contain really good advice but nonetheless, as already mentioned, do remember that health situations vary from person to person. The solutions that worked for the other person might not work for you. It’s good to broaden your horizons and consider different approached to healthcare, but always consult a health professional before making any radical changes.
Time relevance is vital, especially in the healthcare sector. This is a revolving sector and new research findings are being published every day. Every problem now has multiple solutions, where one might be more efficient than the other. Sometimes researchers challenge other published research articles, and they can prove the previous research work ineffective. If you are following outdated or ineffective publications, you may run into trouble rather than finding a solution to your problem.
Understanding the site is critical. We already talked about this part above briefly. Once you can detect what type of organisation it is, you should find out the motive of the organisation and how authentic their information is for your case. What is their central purpose? Commercial sites especially provide the type of content that can make them money, disregarding the situation of the reader.
Protect your privacy
Privacy is of utmost importance, especially when it comes to your health information. This sensitive information in the wrong hand could be lethal. If you are in a site where you get live treatment, you must clarify the privacy statement of the site first and their record policy and others. If you are visiting a site to read content, beware of their cookie policies.
If you are posting on a site about your health problems, be careful about who you trust. Protect your private health information at any cost. Your National Insurance number is private information, and if any site asks for that, evaluate the site properly, and see if you can trust it.
Reliability is a hard thing on the internet. This ever-changing platform poses a great challenge for sensitive sectors like healthcare. It is the duty of the content makers to provide good content, but the user also must avoid clickbait and money-making content and look for useful stuff, using common sense and online awareness.
There is reliable online health-related information on the internet but always be cautious and check the authenticity of the site and use the information as a guide only.
Computer photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova from Pexels
Trust image by Gerd Altmann